The federal poverty level is an archaic definition for poverty that is the same whether you live in rural areas of Nebraska or urban areas such as NYC. The poverty level for a single person in 2017 was just $12,060; for a parent and one child it was $16,240; for a parent and 2 children, it was $20,420. You get the picture. Could you pay rent in NYC and food and transportation and childcare andmedical on that?
The $15/hour minimum wage law in New York City (starting next year, 2019) is an important step towards helping low wage workers obtain fair pay for their work. But let me be clear: in our City, the ‘minimum’ is way below the ‘livable’. Too many people in the government – local, state and federal - conflate ‘minimum’ with ‘livable’ and pat themselves on the back for ‘lifting people out of poverty’. Not true.
When a family of three makes $30,000 a year instead of $20,420, are we really ‘lifting them out of poverty’ as the Mayor so proudly states? People are food insecure because they have to make horrible choices - do I pay the light bill or buy fresh fruits and vegetables and milk and chicken? Do I pay for my medication or the train to go to work? Food insecurity is about poverty. And in NYC, whether you live in the Bronx or Queens, Staten Island or Brooklyn or Manhattan, $20,240 is not enough to live on for a mother and her two children.
This ‘lifting’ people over an antiquated divider line may make a more fortunate class feel better about itself but it actually perpetuates the hierarchical thinking that certain people are ‘lesser’ because they can’t pick themselves up by their bootstraps. Way back in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, having instituted the Equal Opportunity Law as part of the war on poverty said “You do not take a person, who for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still believe that you have been completely fair.” Yet we all do take that person to the proverbial starting line and expect miracles.
If we clearly and unabashedly wanted to lift people out of poverty, we would confront inequality head on, and ensure that all people could afford the fundamental requirements of living: a decent place to live, schools with high standards, transportation that was affordable and convenient, childcare that was free, and healthy food that was accessible to all. In fact, the United States is almost last in the world in its care of its children.
So when we applaud ourselves for ‘lifting people out of poverty’ we malign those who don’t magically rise up to a higher level, knowing full well that they cannot. ‘Minimum’ has little meaning if it is insufficient for necessary costs for minimum living quality.
This is why MealsForGood was born: to add a little bit of help, and reduce some of the angst of food insecurity (at least) by supplying fresh, healthy food for people who can’t afford it in their own communities.
While we fight for a livable wage for all, one that includes decent housing, decent healthcare, decent education, MealsForGood is at least trying to help make ‘minimum’ a little more livable.