Sometimes a Rising Tide Just Doesn’t Lift All Boats

The old expression about a rising tide lifting all boats is one that I have admittedly used myself.  Sometimes it seems just right, and I throw it into what I am saying.  I use it less and less these days because I find that it is less and less true.  And in the food bank world that I live in, the old saw is almost universally incorrect.

Food banks around the country started in the depths of a very deep recession in the early 1980s.  Inflation was rampant.  Oil and gas prices were at record highs.  Unemployment had climbed and stayed at elevated levels for a long time.  Out of this environment, John van Hengel in Phoenix created the idea of rescuing surplus food from food businesses and channeling that food to the growing numbers of hungry people in the country.  Incredibly, that idea has since grown into the Feeding America network of food banks, the largest private sector feeding organization in the United States.

(above: John van Hengel pictured at St. Mary’s Food Bank)

We’ve unfortunately experienced many recessions since those early years in foodbanking including the devastating one that began in 2008.  Conventional wisdom says that as recessions release their grip on our economy, poverty and its worst symptom, hunger, decrease.  That isn’t what happens though.  The rising tide of economic recovery has failed time and time again to lift the boats of millions of the poorest Americans.

Why is that so?  Partly it is because people have very little savings to fall back on when hard times hit them.  Nearly a third of Americans have no savings at all, and New Mexico has the lowest rate of savings in the United States.  When people have no savings and they lose their jobs, they are the ones who lose their homes or pile up unsustainable debt in an effort to get by.  And, according to the Albuquerque Journal on April 24, 2013, even for middle class people who had some net worth to begin with, 93 percent of all U.S. households experienced a 4% decline in net worth from 2009 to 2011.

Also many of the jobs created following recession are lower paying jobs than the ones they replaced.  That has certainly been the case with the latest and most severe of the recessions.  Millions of people in the U.S. have simply bailed out of the job market as they have been unable to find work, and in New Mexico the rate of workforce decline has been greater than the nation’s as a whole.  According to the Albuquerque Journal on April 11, 2013, New Mexico’s workforce is not expected to reach pre-recession levels until at least 2016.  In the same article, Lee Reynis, Director of UNM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, was quoted as saying bluntly, “The fact is job opportunities aren’t there in New Mexico.”  This trend has continued over decades so that one out of every four workers in our country now has a job that pays $10 an hour or less.

family picking up food from a food pantry

Finally, the distressing fact is that nearly 50 million Americans—one out of six—lives below the poverty level ($23,550 for a family of four) and 20 million of them are in extreme poverty (earning less than half the poverty level).  Sadly poverty in our country is now approaching a 50-year high, and the costs to our society are enormous.  According to one university study the estimated cost to the U.S. economy of childhood poverty is $500 billion per year.

It is clear to see why the rising tide of the economy has not floated the boats for so many of our fellow citizens.  Lack of savings, low wages and persistent poverty all conspire to keep people struggling just to get by, stuck in a bad place in life with no real way out.  According to former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, “We have a broad, inchoate sense that our economy isn’t doing well, but we too rarely consider what this means for one third of our people—jobs that are insecure and pay little, unaffordable housing, no benefits, parents skipping meals so children have enough to eat and lives barely held together by going into unsustainable debt, turning to charity and cobbling together government benefits.”

And the place in the country where the boats are least likely to have been raised is, predictably and unfortunately, right here in New Mexico.  The Feeding America national food bank network recently released the annual Map the Meal Gap survey which showed New Mexico as the second hungriest state overall (only behind Mississippi) and the hungriest state for children with an alarming 30 percent of our state’s children growing up in a home where there is not always enough to eat.  We’ll be talking more about this alarming data in the coming months.

In the meantime, I think I will quit using the old adage about the rising tide raising all boats because I know that for tens of thousands of our neighbors, nothing could be further from the truth.

Melody Wattenbarger was the President and CEO of Roadrunner Food Bank until Dec. 2017.

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