A decade ago, Tammy Jaime lost everything to drugs. She and her husband spent their savings, lost their home and car, and ended up in a rural California town not far from the Oregon border, begging for food for their children.
But that's not why Jaime struggles to feed her kids today. These days, Jaime, 39, is sober, enrolled in college, and working part-time for Cisco Headstart where she earns $12 an hour. It's the most money she has ever made, but routinely, as the month draws to a close, she and her husband run out of funds, particularly when somebody in the family falls sick and they end up with high medical bills. "We live from paycheck to paycheck," Jaime said. "We don't eat out very much. We don't have TV. ... Next week is payday. But then, you know what, my check is gone the next day because it's all lined up for bills."
Jaime and her family are among millions of Californians who are struggling to put food on the table, a situation that has worsened substantially since the beginning of the Great Recession. While California doesn't have the highest rate of poverty or hunger in the country, its raw hunger and food insecurity numbers are stunning. The state with the largest population in the country has the second highest number of food-stamp enrollees (Texas holds the dubious distinction of coming in first), with more than 3.8 million residents on its CalFresh program. Of these, 1.39 million are children.
Yes, four-plus years into the worst financial, housing, and unemployment crisis to hit the country since the Great Depression, America's hunger numbers continue to climb. Nationwide, 46 million people are enrolled in food-stamp programs; they receive benefits that average $133.80 per month per individual, and $283.65 for a household.
Millions more, based on their income numbers, ought to be so enrolled, but for many reasons aren't. Indeed, California would have far more food-stamp recipients if it did even a remotely decent job of reaching out to those poor enough to qualify for the federally funded program. As it is, while some states successfully enroll upward of 90 percent of food-insecure households, more than half of all Californians who should be covered by food stamps remain outside of that part of the social safety net. That means nearly 4 million Californians are going without basic food assistance from the government even though they're entitled to receive it. To survive, these men, women and children are reliant either on the largesse of local charities, churches, and food pantries, or they are simply missing meals to stretch their meager food dollars as long as possible.
"California's about the bottom of the barrel," said California Food Policy Advocates Executive Director Ken Hecht, of the low food-stamp enrollment rate. Hecht's organization published a report in 2010, "Lost Dollars, Empty Plates," which concluded that approximately 3.6 million Californians who qualify for food stamps are nevertheless not enrolled — thus sacrificing federally-funded benefits worth a total of more than $4.8 billion annually.
Moreover, the dismal enrollment numbers are delivering a devastating blow to California's economy. Food stamps are known to have a powerful stimulative effect, because people who receive them tend to spend them immediately at grocery stores, allowing shopkeepers to buy more food from suppliers and hire workers to stock shelves. In short, food stamp expenditures circulate rapidly through the economy, and the California Food Policy Advocates' researchers have calculated that the total cost to the California economy of unclaimed food-stamp benefits is a staggering $8.68 billion.
Last year, hunger advocates from around the state convened in Sacramento to highlight the urgency of the problem. Members of Hunger Action Los Angeles showed up at the Capitol carrying cardboard cut-out figures, on each of which was glued a paper plate that showed hunger data generated by the California Health Interview Survey for individual counties. Whichever part of the state one chose to focus on, the numbers were dismal:
In Los Angeles County, there were nearly 1.13 million "food insecure" adults in 2009, the most recent year for which such data exists, most of them insecure because they were not enrolled in the food stamp program. In Riverside County, the number was close to quarter of a million. San Diego had 210,000; Sacramento 126,000; Santa Clara 96,000. In Alameda County, there were 169,000.
And these startling numbers don't include the additional millions of California residents like Jaime who don't receive food stamps because their part-time, low-wage work disqualifies them from the program even though they don't make enough to cover all their bills. These folks juggle with expenses and, in the process, frequently end up with insufficient money to buy enough food for themselves and their children.
Hunger in 21st-century America transcends stereotypes: It might be portrayed by a food line snaking through a dirt poor neighborhood in a dilapidated inner city, an image redolent of Great Depression-era photographs by chroniclers such as Dorothea Lange. It's also just as likely to be embodied by somebody like Marcy Glickman, who for most of her life was upper-middle class, a denizen of LA's fashionable west side, but who has recently been brought low by medical bills following her husband's illness and death, and her own disability.
"I've had a Mercedes, we could travel, we could buy nice things, jewelry," Glickman said. "We lived a great life. Great medical coverage. Children in private schools. Then all of a sudden it changed, because of illness. ... My husband had cancer. Those bills are horrendous. It's the nightmare that you'd never, never want. One day, you're high on the hill. The next day ... you're a part of those that don't have."