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The Home Front Battle on Poverty Is Being Lost

8 December 2001

Five days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, leaders of the major hunger relief organizations in Los Angeles declared a countywide food emergency, an unprecedented event that emerged out of a stark reality: L.A. County on Sept. 6 led the nation in the breadth of its hunger and poverty.

Since Sept. 11, the acceleration of suffering has been so alarming that the poor may soon pray for military airdrops of shelters and food.

Before the attacks, the United Way described L.A. County as being in "the most precarious [condition] since the Great Depression." Since Sept. 11, corporate and foundation donations that support the fragile local "charity safety net" have been diverted to New York relief funds. Simultaneously, "collateral damage" layoffs have hit thousands of mostly low-wage L.A. jobholders who have few resources to supplement meager unemployment payments.

Worse, President Bush's original budget eradicated big chunks of funding for desperately needed housing and job training--cuts equal in vastness to the sumptuous tax relief for the wealthy. After the attacks, huge tax rebates and cuts for the least-needy corporations have been proposed, and Congress will probably further diminish human-services funding to cover increased security costs and disaster relief. Every other level of government is weighing budget cuts that will further mangle underfunded poverty programs.

With emergency shelters and pantries already not meeting "roof and food" needs, combined with the flood of recent layoffs, we have an atrocious local mess and no emergency federal help.

Painfully, very few people understand the dimensions of the crisis. L.A.'s enclaves for the middle class and beyond are largely sheltered from the "other L.A.," where 3 million-plus county residents are poor and nearly 600,000 experienced hunger last year, an astounding figure. Overall, 1.4 million individuals are classified by the county as "food insecure," including 45% of children in poor families.

Choosing between housing and eating is now a serious issue for low-wage working families, individuals and many seniors as rents soar and landlords yank units from subsidized programs. Meanwhile, 200,000 single moms are scheduled to be dropped from federal assistance in 2003.

The solution lies in active community, government and media. Donations must flow back to local relief charities. The public and businesses can create roles for themselves through existing poverty relief organizations, found at online volunteer sites. Government at every level must be reorien ted to the ongoing poverty disaster.

Many groups have already put programs before officials at every level of government. Hunger relief groups have created the L.A. Hunger-Free Zone program. Welfare reform folks advocate an Invest in Families program. Housing groups are, on the L.A. city level, promoting the Housing Trust Fund.

But private relief groups say they can be only part of the solution. Caring individuals must also become advocates for the poor by demanding that attention be paid to interests other than those of campaign contributors.

Jay Levin.
Published in the Los Angeles Times (c) 2001 Los Angeles Times

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