If You’re Not Angry About Hunger in Philly, You May Be Soon

What a fight among competing food charities reveals about the shrinking middle class.

shutterstock_hunger-foodSunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer story about the city’s feuding food charities provides plenty of reasons to get mad as hell, but possibly not the ones that first come to mind.

The story, by the Inquirer’s Alfred Lubrano, details how Philabundance has gotten crosswise with other food charities in the region, basically by acting like the Walmart of feeding the hungry poor: By being bigger and a little better than most of its would-be competitors, Philabundance has achieved dominance and knocked many of them aside. And the organization, rather than singing “Kumbaya” like you might expect from a non-profit organization, seems happy to be the bad guy — because, after all, it’s getting stuff done.

That Philabundance is fighting with it’s neighbors doesn’t concern me, quite. More bothersome are the conditions underlying that fight. Consider other items in the story:

The regional food fight rages at a time when the federal government has reduced food-stamp benefits, and, advocates point out, the refrigerators of even some working people are depressingly empty.

And consider:

Between 2006 and 2012, annual U.S. industry contributions to food banks declined from 858 million pounds to 815 million pounds, according to the Food Marketing Institute, an industry association.

And consider this, from elsewhere in Sunday’s paper:

The middle class of Philadelphia has declined in astonishing numbers between 1970 and 2010, dropping 17 percentage points while the nation’s share fell only 10 during roughly the same period. The share of lower-class households increased sharply, while upper-tier households remained roughly flat as a percentage of overall population. … Pew’s data did not look at what additional impact the 2008 global financial crisis and Great Recession may have had since 2010.

In other words: Government is contributing fewer resources to the fight against hunger. Major donors are contributing fewer resources to the fight against hunger. But hunger — and other surrounding ailments of poverty — is not in retreat: It has long been winning the battle in Philadelphia, and probably has only been exacerbated by the Great Recession.

Mad yet?

If not, consider this: It’s getting more difficult than ever to work your way out of this problem. As we’ve detailed before, a huge chunk of the jobs created in Pennsylvania since the recession’s end are low-wage service industry jobs — the kind of work that pays so little it must be supplemented with aid from Philabundance or by applying for food stamps.

The problem is not just poor, broken Philadelphia with its entire litany of complaints and excuses: The “skyrocketing” poverty rate in Chester County should be proof of that. And it’s not even a Pennsylvania problem.

Consider this:

The number of American workers who are low-wage and low-income earners jumped 94 percent from 1979 to 2011, reaching 20.9 million workers, according to a new study from University of Massachusetts Boston economists Randy Albelda and Michael Carr.

That means that 1 in 7 U.S. workers lives in a household whose main source of income is a low-paying job, such as working as a retail sales clerk or a fast-food restaurant cashier. The findings may go some way to explain why fewer Americans today identify as middle class, while those calling themselves lower or lower-middle class has jumped to 40 percent, up from only one-quarter in 2008.

And if you’re not mad yet, consider, too, the lesson from New Yorker writer George Packer’s recent book, The Unwinding, which offers a detailed reminder — if you needed it — of how major banks were bailed out during the recent recession, but then turned around and foreclosed on a number of homeowners, destroying lives and livelihoods in the process. We’re still feeling the fallout from that.

If a societal system is designed fairly, it will lift the prospects of a majority of its members. If it is broken, it will defend only the prospects of a privileged few.

Plainly, the system we live in is broken.

This isn’t to fling capitalism into the fire and welcome socialism into the fold. But there was a time when capitalists accumulated large fortunes and, in so doing, felt they’d accumulated large obligations to society. Andrew Carnegie built libraries, remember; many others considered the creation of decent jobs to be part of their mission: Henry Ford, while a racist, was pioneering in that regard. Profit was a necessary motive, of course, but it wasn’t judged to be the only legitimate motive — unlike, apparently today, when Apple (one of the most profitable companies in human history) comes under fire because sustainability programs eat ever so slightly into the gigantic bottom line.

The system is broken on a national level. It is ailing, and has been since before the recession. Philabundance and its neighbors aren’t just fighting over tactics. They’re fighting for a piece of a shrinking pie. When you stop and think about the reasons why that is the case, it should enrage you. The problem is much bigger than just a couple of local charities.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.