Arizona’s sharply rising poverty rate has spurred a run on food banks statewide, including Rim Country where food banks continue to push a food drive through the holiday season.
Arizona now suffers the second highest poverty rate in the nation and food banks this year reported a 27 percent jump in demand, according to a just-released survey by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.
The long lines at many food banks mirror a 33 percent increase in applications for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — formerly called food stamps.
Nearly 1 million Arizonans now need extra food, including one out of four children, according to the survey.
The situation has worsened dramatically in the past year as the recession has dragged on. The U.S. Census Bureau reported recently that 21 percent of the state’s residents now live in poverty — a total of some 1.4 million.
That compares to the national poverty rate of 14 percent. Nationally, the poverty level for a family of four stands at about $22,000.
Before the recession set in, Arizona’s poverty rate was 14.3 percent, compared to a national rate of 12.5 percent. At that time, the state ranked 14th in its poverty rate, according to the Census Bureau. Nearly one-third of the state’s children live below the poverty line compared to 21 percent nationally. For the child poverty rate, Arizona ranks just above Mississippi — and is tied with the District of Columbia.
Even among state residents with jobs, the poverty rate is 18 percent compared to 14 percent nationwide. Among seniors, the state’s poverty rate stands at 14 percent, compared to 9 percent nationally.
Moreover, only 80 percent of Arizona residents have medical insurance, compared to 83 percent nationally.
However, it’s the lack of food that often poses the most immediate threats to families struggling to cope with the seemingly never-ended economic downturn — with its chronic 10 percent unemployment.
The Morrison Institute survey noted, “Arizona has the second highest poverty rate in the nation. This shameful distinction calls attention to a long-standing social problem that has been exacerbated by challenging economic times. Today, many Arizonans are experiencing need for the first time and must seek assistance in ways they had never imagined. Increased demand for emergency food assistance is clear evidence of their plight.”
The survey showed that among people seeking emergency food aid, only 12 percent were homeless and only 7 percent were older than 65. About 27 percent had some sort of education beyond high school — either trade school, college or community college.
The report said the federal government has started to cut back on the SNAP (food stamp) program to balance the budget and pulled back the stimulus fund supplement provided this year.
Food stamps provide about $1.42 per meal. Studies suggest that this amounts to less than two-thirds of the nutrition people need on a daily average.
A study by the Association of Arizona Food Banks calculated that food stamps and the food banks combined are meeting only about 60 percent of the need.
One survey in 2010 found that 43 percent of the people who came to food banks reported they had to choose between paying for food and paying the rent, half said they left utilities unpaid to buy food and one-third said they skipped needed medical care to buy food.
The number of people seeking help from food banks has risen 85 percent since 2006. An estimated 15 percent of Arizonans can’t afford to buy enough food, according to the survey.
Other programs have also dwindled, including the Arizona Statewide Gleaning Project, which at its peak in 2004 collected and redistributed some 812 million pounds of food in the state. This year, that total fell to 45 million pounds.
The government cutbacks will shift more of the burden to the already struggling food banks and private donors.
A coalition of food banks and churches in the Rim Country has launched a supplemental food drive, to replenish the bare shelves of local food banks. That effort will continue into February. So far, Rim Country residents have contributed an extra 21,000 pounds of food and $10,300 in cash.