Together, we find solutions

“I’m hungry. I need a box.”

Several clients have said this to me as I check them in at We Care We Share, a food pantry and clothing closet on East 31st Street in South Lorain, Ohio.

Residents across the county can pick up a food box every four weeks at our food pantry. There are other pantries around and many of our patrons visit them as well. There’s nothing wrong with that.

People are hungry.

In the United States.

Food insecurity

One in five children in Ohio is “food insecure,” John Corlett, president and executive director of the Cleveland-based Center for Community Solutions, told several hundred of us who attended the inaugural Child Hunger Summit on Thursday at Lorain County Community College in Elyria.

Corlett defined food insecurity as “a household’s inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life.”

One in five children lives in such a household. 20 percent of our impressionable young people.

Hunger stretches beyond an empty stomach, Corlett continued. Children in food-insecure households have higher rates of asthma, depression, ADHD (which can lead to discipline and behavior issues in school) and hospital emergency room visits. Food-insecure parents have more stress, anxiety, depression and anger, Corlett said.

A comprehensive approach

That’s why the Lorain-based Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio hosted the Child Hunger Summit. The event brought together business professionals, educators, non-profit leaders, government officials and others to brainstorm ways to overcome food insecurity.

It takes a wide-ranging, comprehensive approach. Stagnant wages, unhealthy lifestyles and government programs that too often exclude those who need them all are issues that hungry people face.

Half of food-insecure families in Ohio don’t qualify for SNAP because they make a little too much money to qualify for the federal food assistance program, Corlett said.

Families seeking public assistance – and those who receive it – often are stigmatized as lazy people who sit around accepting handouts. But most people on assistance programs, including SNAP, hold down one or more jobs and still can’t make ends meet, Corlett said.

He advocated expanding basic programs such as SNAP and WIC – which assists pregnant women and families with infants and children up to age 5 – to reach more people who need them.

Living wages

He also urged employers to provide living wages.

While not a poverty issue, this is a main sticking point in the United Auto Workers’ strike against General Motors Corp., which began earlier this week. Many workers, especially new hires, can’t afford to buy the vehicles they make.

Autoworkers also are seeking job security, noting that GM made a big profit last year – $35 billion, according to some accounts.

At the We Care We Share food pantry, I see families – often with a single mom as head of household – who move frequently. It’s not unusual for the address in our computer to be different than the address on her driver’s license. It’s also not unusual for her to give me yet another address.

Food insecurity has many ramifications.

I don’t probe, but I wonder if at least some of these families were evicted. Or at least have trouble making a rent payment.

Improvements uneven

Statistics show that food insecurity has dropped a little since 2008 as the economy has improved, but Corlett noted that the economic gains have been uneven. Wages have not kept pace, he said. And in 2016, household food insecurity was twice as bad for families led by African-American or Hispanic parents than for families led by whites.

The federal government can help food-insecure families, Corlett said. The Earned Income Tax Credit is the best government program to reduce poverty by providing income through the tax system, he said.

Second best is SNAP, followed by the child care tax credit.

SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – reduces adult obesity by 16 percentage points and increases the likelihood of children completing high school by 18 percentage points, he said. (The median SNAP benefit for households with young children is $12.86 per day – often for a household of two or three people, so that money doesn’t go very far.)

And yet SNAP, WIC and Medicaid participation are dropping, for several potential reasons:

  • Those programs have been automated and not everyone has access to a computer. SNAP benefits are loaded on a card that recipients spend at stores that participate, for example.
  • Some needy residents do not speak fluent English, and there’s isn’t as much guidance from volunteers and government agencies to apply for and navigate these programs. (I’ve seen this at the food pantry as well. Thankfully, we have three Spanish-speaking volunteers who translate for us when a client speaks little or no English.) In the United States, Corlett said, more than 20 percent of families with children younger than 6 speak a language other than English at home.
  • WIC – a federal supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children – reaches about 52 percent of eligible participants in Lorain County, the same as the state average, said Marissa Wayner, WIC director for Lorain County Public Health in Elyria. That has declined in recent years. Fewer people are eligible, she said. Other issues include:
  • Lack of awareness of the program.
  • Not knowing who qualifies.
  • Federal immigration policies.
  • Stigma at the store: Am I buying unqualified items?

SNAP and other federal programs are not intended to provide all of a family’s food, said Sandy Moraco of Elyria-based Lorain County Department of Job & Family Services. The “S,” after all, stands for “Supplemental.”

Starting Oct. 1, Moraco said, eligible families may apply for SNAP benefits by phone: (844) 640-OHIO. That will save time and require fewer in-person visits by clients, she said.

Working together

The bottom line?

Food insecurity has multiple causes and requires multiple solutions. All of us in this country must work together to ensure that our residents have access to the most basic rights of human life.

A full stomach. Knowing where our next meal is coming from. Access to health care. A roof over our heads that we can afford.

I haven’t mentioned transportation, but that’s an issue too. We need a dependable way to get to work, to the doctor’s office, to the grocery store.

Most of us take these things for granted. We shouldn’t.

That’s why I volunteer at a food pantry. Perhaps there are other things I can do as well to help those around me overcome food insecurity.

Will you join me in this effort?

Yes, taxes are necessary

What are the purposes of taxes? What should be your attitude toward paying them?

Those questions came up in a weekly Bible study I’m in. Our discussion leader skipped them, probably because the answers are – or should be – obvious.

We pay taxes for projects that you and I need but can’t afford to pay for on our own. Taxes pay to build and maintain roads, including plowing snow and fixing potholes. They pay for water and sewer projects (homeowners often have to pitch in for those). Our tax dollars pay for trash and recycling pickup every week. They pay for parks and recreation – we have awesome public parks where I live, and I don’t have to pay an entrance fee every time I visit one. They pay for libraries (remember those?). And public transportation.

Taxes pay for police and fire departments to protect us, court systems (including jails) to provide justice, and kindergarten-through-12th grade education to help our children prepare for adult life.

And that’s just local taxes (including countywide, in some cases). Here’s the 2016 fiscal year report for the city I live in, taken from the city’s web site. Page 18 includes a flow chart of what the city is all about.

http://www.cityofelyria.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/2016_City_of_Elyria_Ohio_CAFR.pdf

At the state level, taxes pay for other things, too. The biggest spending item – just over half the state’s budget – is “health and human services.” Second is “primary, secondary and other education,” followed by “higher education.”

https://obm.ohio.gov/Budget/operating/doc/fy-14-15/bluebook/budget/Section-C_14-15.pdf

At the national level, the three biggest federal programs are health care (including Medicare and Medicaid), pensions (including Social Security) and Defense.

Next come welfare, interest on the national debt, transportation, general government and protection.

https://www.usgovernmentspending.com/federal_budget_detail_fy19bs22018n

Communication crucial

What should our attitude be toward paying for such services? Hopefully, we pay willingly, since all of these services are needed.

At the local and state levels, those in charge of the budgets are required to balance income and spending. This often requires tough decisions because voters do not automatically approve taxes for every project – nor should we.

Sometimes voters get nitpicky or reactionary. Sometimes leaders ask for a Cadillac project when a Chevrolet version will do just fine. Our local school district in Michigan discovered this a number of years ago: Many school buildings were outdated and new schools in new locations were needed, and since voters had approved many previous school levies, leaders asked for a very expensive plan – which got shot down. They pared it back, asked voters for a smaller yet effective plan, and got that one approved.

Where we live now, voters recently approved a millage to build five new kindergarten-through-8th grade buildings around the city. We learned a couple of weeks ago that cost overruns led the planning consultants to recommend constructing only three buildings – on the north, east and west sides of town, leaving the south side without a neighborhood elementary/middle school.

As you might imagine, that plan isn’t going over so well. Meetings are being held, petitions are being circulated and pressure is mounting to keep the south side school in the plans.

This is the way democracy works. We expect leaders to follow through on promises. We expect budgets to be met. Creativity is required here.

This is why we pay taxes. Every local citizen has the right to express his or her viewpoint on this crucial issue. Our leaders will make the call, but they are accountable to us. And we will be heard.

The benefits of taxes

If we have a job, and if we own a home or even pay rent, we pay taxes. When our Founding Fathers set up our country more than 200 years ago, they set it up this way. We can tweak the system – are property taxes the best way to collect local funds? – but taxes will get collected in some form.

So often, we focus only on how much we pay. We need to be reminded of what we receive. We take trash collection for granted, for example (unless it’s not collected for some reason, in which case residents will howl very loudly). We want our street plowed in the winter, and complain when it’s one of the last to get cleared. (Hopefully traffic volume determines the priority for street plowing.) We recently learned that our city has only 10 employees that plow snow and fix potholes. For the entire city. No wonder they can’t clean every street the moment it snows.

We get what we pay for.

At the state level, they’re talking about combining the K-12 education budget with the higher education budget, creating one huge education department overseeing all of it. State leaders want to streamline everything; opponents say K-12 and higher education have different purposes, and should remain separate.

Not sure that plan will fly, but we’ll see.

No balanced budget, no decisions necessary

The federal government is not required to balance its budget, so Congress often avoids the tough discussions that local and state legislators must have. That skyrockets the federal debt. Is that sustainable?

I’m one of those who would like to see a mandated balanced budget, forcing legislators (and the president) to actually do their jobs. Not every constituent will be happy. Welcome to the real world. (Pork projects might actually get eliminated, since priorities would have to be set.)

We need a federally funded military to defend us across the world. I don’t think anyone would object to that. But how big should the military be? What weapons do we need, and which ones cost more than the benefits they provide?

I wish we could debate those things. At least, I wish our elected leaders would debate those things.

Are they spending our tax dollars wisely?

We have a right to ask that.

Taxes are a given. They pay for goods and services all of us need.

As we debate how our tax dollars are spent – locally, statewide and federally – let’s give thanks for the government structures that our Founding Fathers established.

The system is good. The devil is in the details.