With hunger and poverty still on the rise in Payson, food banks hope to raise money and awareness through Saturday’s “Friends of the Poor Walk.”
The St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank in Payson gives out 750 food baskets to help nearly 2,000 local residents every month, with the need still increasing nearly three years after the start of the economic downturn.
The group also visits the homes of 36 families in need every month, and last month used $10,000 in donations to help people facing the threat of homelessness pay their rent and utility bills — or sometimes fill up their gas tanks so they could continue the desperate search for work with unemployment remaining stubbornly stuck at 9 percent locally.
“The demand just keeps rising, with so many people displaced and laid off,” said James Bridges, co-president of the Society of St. Vincent De Paul.
“So many people are living on that thin line between just making it and going completely under.”
He said after struggling for months, an increasing number of families are losing their grip on the end of a fraying rope and finding themselves homeless.
Last year, the one-mile walk raised about $8,000. This year, the group hopes to double that total, to help cope with the rising need.
Anyone interested in joining in the walk or sponsoring a walker can call Lynn Canning at 474-1347.
The group will meet at 7 a.m. in front of the Sawmill Theatres for registration, and then walk down to the Oasis Christian Bookstore parking area and back, said Bridges.
This year, they’ve asked back the parade of llamas that proved a hit last year.
“The kids just went crazy for the llamas,” said Bridges, who last week got a resolution of support from the Payson Town Council.
Arizona now has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, especially among children.
Nearly 60 percent of the students enrolled in the Payson Unified School District have incomes low enough to qualify for free and reduced school lunches, a share that had increased dramatically in the past three years.
The state’s overall poverty rate stands at 21 percent, second only to Mississippi, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, and one-third higher than the national average of 14 percent. Before the recession, Arizona’s poverty rate stood at 14 percent, which was the 14th highest nationally. Among children, the poverty rate stands at 31 percent in Arizona and 21 percent nationally, according to the Census figures.
Gila County’s poverty rates generally run well above the state average, but that’s in large measure as a result of the presence of the San Carlos Apache Reservation and the struggling mining communities around Globe and Miami in the southern part of the county.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released a national study that found Arizona among the worst in the country when it comes to child poverty, medical insurance and families that have lost their home to foreclosure.
In addition, Arizona is 43rd in its teen birth rate and 42nd in its teen dropout rate
About 14 percent of Arizona children had no medical insurance even before the Arizona Legislature this year froze the KidsCare AHCCCS-based health care program, which added more than 100,000 children to the ranks of the uninsured.
Overall, 23 percent of the state’s children live in poverty, which the federal government defines as an income of $18,530 for a family of three. Nationally, an average of 20 percent of children live in poverty.
Moreover, 8 percent of Arizona children live in a home affected by foreclosure, which puts the state’s rate at twice the national average. Arizona ranks third behind Nevada and Florida in foreclosures.
As state-funded assistance programs have dried up, private groups like St. Vincent de Paul have shouldered an increasing share of the load.