The number of families struggling to put food on the table rose last year, according to an Aug. 3 story from CBS News. That story relied on a Gallup survey of 338,000 families, 16 percent of whom said they lacked money for food at least once last year. That risk is even higher for families with children.
That trend is borne out here in southwestern Columbia County, where a number of food pantries and outreach programs aim to solve hunger. The programs are finding plenty of mouths to feed — and they are often families that have someone working at least one, often more, jobs.
A more local dataset suggests wages are low in Columbia County, compared to the rest of the state. A 2017 Economic and Workforce profile includes data from the Department of Workforce Development to compare wages in Columbia County to the rest of the state. Besides natural resources, where wages exceed the state average by 21 percent, employees are earning below the state average, ranging from 7 percent less (manufacturing) to 49 percent less (information.) On average, workers in Columbia County earn 84.1 percent of the state-wide average. (note: the graph did not differentiate between full or part-time jobs)
Jane Collins, professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said rural poverty can be more difficult to spot. “There are fewer people driving around rural back roads, so it’s less seen,” she said.
Food pantries are becoming increasingly important because public assistance is not as readily available, she said. Stagnant wages and economic emergencies, often in the form of unforeseen medical bills, can leave people unable to pay all their bills and stock the fridge and cupboards.
Collins estimated that 30 percent of families who work fall below the poverty line.
“We have a lucky state in that unemployment is low, but wages have been so stagnant that one-third of people who work can’t break the poverty line.”
Collins spoke to a phenomenon echoed by directors of three different area food pantries — some jobs just don’t pay the bills.
“If you have a job working in a garage, or as a (certified nursing assistant), you would make enough to support your family, but that’s not true today,” Collins said. “There’s no way you can pay rent, keep a car running, pay a good portion or all of your healthcare, meet your kids school supply needs — you just can’t live on 11 dollars an hour.”
“These are jobs that used to be respectable, maybe not middle class, but working class. Now you’re just in poverty.”
Collins said the stigma surrounding poverty is as American as apple pie. “We believe in the US that everyone should be able to pull up by bootstraps,” she said. “We keep telling those stories about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps even though opportunity sure looks a lot different than it did 50 years ago.”
Collins said then presidential-candidate Ronald Reagan’s talk of welfare queens, and current day, often-apocryphal iterations on social media today, are still animated in the public imagination.
Collins said she was heartened by the work being done by local pantries, but recommended a more concrete solution — raising the minimum wage. “As a minimum wage, that’s the floor,” she said. “The entire wage scale tends to move up once you do that.”
Collins acknowledged most people are avoiding the issue. “It’s a discussion we ought to have be having.”