Lewis Diuguid

Hard times revisit many this Christmas because of the lingering effects of the Great Recession

The traditional view of Christmas with a decorated tree, a lot of presents and hearth and home won’t be so pretty this year for a lot of Americans because of the lingering effects of the Great Recession.
The traditional view of Christmas with a decorated tree, a lot of presents and hearth and home won’t be so pretty this year for a lot of Americans because of the lingering effects of the Great Recession.

From Wall Street after the reported end of the Great Recession five years ago, the economy looks great. But down on Main Street and in neighborhoods where most people live, the hard times this Christmas Eve appear unending.

You see it in the age of the cars that people are driving. The September/October 2014 edition of AAA Midwest Traveler measures it at 11.4 years — unchanged for a second consecutive year. Despite great sales that automakers keep reporting, most Americans are saving their pennies, keeping their vehicles longer.

But the problem the recession created also is visible at area food pantries and soup kitchens, where more individuals and families are turning for help. Food is the one “flexible” expense compared to a mortgage, rent, auto note or utilities.

People will cut back on food when their money doesn’t stretch to the end of each month. And that’s not an isolated concern.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 14.3 percent, or one in seven U.S. households in 2013, was what it calls food insecure. That means that people’s regular eating habits were “disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food,” the report said. In comparison, 14.6 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2008-2010 during the recession.

People’s ability to feed themselves and their families was worse in the South than other regions in the U.S. But families in Missouri and Kansas that struggled to get enough food exceeded the national rate. In Kansas 15.2 percent of the 1.17 million households were food insecure. In Missouri, 16.9 percent of the state’s 2.4 million households were food insecure.

Often the face of such hunger and poverty that’s presented to the public is black or brown. Although the percentage of food insecure African American and Latino families is disproportionately high, the actual number of food insecure white families at 3.2 million far exceeds those that are black, 1.7 million, and those that are Hispanic, 2.1 million, the Department of Agriculture reports.

What Congress and state lawmakers need to pay attention to is 62 percent of all food-insecure households participated in one or more of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs during the month before the Department of Agriculture survey. Those include food stamps and free and reduced breakfast and lunch at school.

In 2013, the typical U.S. household each week spent $50 per person for food. Food-secure households spend 30 percent more on food than similar households struggling to make ends meet.

Unemployment keeps inching down but partly because more people are dropping out of looking for work. Many people are underemployed, taking jobs that pay a lot less than what they were making before the Great Recession.

The U.S. income gap keeps rising because growth in the stock market mainly benefits those at the top. Wage earners on Main Street get only little if any pay raises.

Median income for the richest 10 percent adjusted for inflation grew 2 percent from $217,900 to $223,200 in the last three years. Income for the middle 20 percent of Americans dropped 6 percent from $51,800 to $48,700. Median income for the bottom 20 percent fell 4 percent from $15,800 to $15,200, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finances.

That cuts into what people can afford, including food. A bigger concern, especially for the future, is the debt of Generation X. These are people born between 1965 and 1980. The Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis notes that Generation X’s debt burden between 2000 and 2014 on average increased more than other generations.

What’s clear is Americans need a fair wage that will enable them to enjoy life and feed their families. Borrowing more isn’t the answer. It will only continue the problems that caused the Great Recession or send the nation sliding back into a deeper hole.

To reach Lewis W. Diuguid, call 816-234-4723 or send email to ldiuguid@kcstar.com.