You see them in greater numbers than ever before – men clustered in parking lots waiting for someone to hire them for a day’s work. There used to be just three or four men, but now there are fifteen or twenty. It used to be quite early in the morning that you would see those three or four, but for the last few years now it is almost noon when you can see the fifteen or twenty still standing, still waiting – the visible tip of the chronically unemployed.
You certainly see them at Food for Others, over these last few years. People who earlier were barely making it on two jobs have been laid off, or had their minimum-wage hours cut. People who were well employed earlier are now out of work or under-employed. Food distribution at our warehouse is up 57 percent over these last few years. Most come because they have heard about Food for Others from friends or family who are clients here already, though increasingly social services and churches send families to us too.
In this long period of economic crisis, Food for Others has seen the grinding effects of chronic unemployment on people first-hand. And now, as experts cite figures that indicate the recession is over, they also speak about other indicators – the clinically named “lagging indicators” – that persist. These “lagging indicators” are in fact people, the jobless, whose numbers have not gone down. Indeed, as we all know, the ranks of these people without work continue to grow. Indicators are going in opposite directions, as one economist noted recently: "I have never seen a 60% rally [in equities] over a seven-month period when 3 million jobs are lost.” Furthermore a study out this week found that between June 2009 and June 2011 incomes fell 6.7 percent. No wonder for most Americans the recovery still feels like a recession.
Poor people, incredibly, pitch in to help each other, sharing living space and childcare and making sure everyone knows where to get help. They share rides to Food for Others, pick up food for friends who can’t come, and push forward however they can. Our donors – incredibly as well – have responded to this need. They read the papers, and they drive past jobless men. Aware of the greater need for food, they have boosted their support accordingly. As demands on Food for Others supplies have grown, we have been so gratified to be able to meet those demands because of our amazing donors. Thanks to them, our warehouse has remained equal to the need over all this time.
We are clearly in for a long-distance run to maintain these services for this increased number of long-term jobless families. While we don’t have the answer to joblessness, we do seem to have connected to a spirit of generosity that is enduring and is in fact responding to this human story being played out among us.
There is a revered peasant proverb: “Beyond mountains there are mountains.” This is the sobering recognition that challenges persist, that overcoming one obstacle does not mean eliminating future obstacles, that deep reserves of spirit are needed over the long haul, which we are all in together. It is a revelation to us how well our clients recognize this and act on this, and how well our donors do too. These are no ordinary times, but they have brought about some extraordinary collaboration – with school groups, scouts, companies, churches, and hundreds of individuals – to ensure that no one goes hungry despite this tragic and ongoing lack of work. Mountains beyond mountains, indeed.
Peter Spain is a volunteer with Food For Others. For more information about Food For Others, call 703-207-9173, or visit foodforothers.org.