Poverty, hunger need Wyoming’s attention

From Common Ground
By Paul W. Hansen

This is the time of year when my wife Kay and I are especially thankful for all the blessings we have in our lives. Inevitably, it is also the time of year we think about those less fortunate than we are.

The U.S Census Bureau reports that in 2017 over 42 million Americans lived in poverty and were food insecure — defined as not always having a reliable source of food. In other words, hungry at least part of the time. I have never understood why in the richest nation on earth, where 40 percent of all food is wasted, so many in our country are hungry. This includes millions of kids.

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program is the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net. It provides an average of $5 per day in food stamps to over 40 million Americans. It cost the average taxpayer about $1.30 per day to provide this food support. I think it is a great use of my tax dollars.

The program was just renewed by Congress for four years as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is making it harder for people to get this support.

The 2018 Teton County Community Health Needs Assessment estimates that 10 percent of our community, or 2,400 people, were food insecure. This is down from 13.5 percent in 2015. In our case, as with most SNAP beneficiaries nationwide, almost all of these people have full-time jobs. Many of them have more than one job.

There are a number of volunteer efforts in our community that we can all be proud of, but we can also do more.

The USDA National School Lunch Program enables around 100 kids to get a free breakfast, and around 330 to get free or reduced-price lunches.

Unfortunately, close to another 300 kids who could use a meal cannot qualify. The USDA does not adjust for cost of living, so many of our hard-working neighbors who pay Teton County’s high cost of housing do not have enough left over for food.

The more insidious problem is that many people fear providing the private information necessary to qualify for the school lunch program. Thankfully, a group of donors who wish to remain anonymous for now have made a major grant to the Teton Education Foundation to provide a $1 lunch or 50-cent breakfast for any child who needs it.

For 45 years the Good Samaritan Mission has been quietly serving our community. It provides free breakfast and dinner every day and lunch boxes for people to take to work — around 1,000 meals per month. Last year itprovided 53,779 pounds of food to people in need. Over 500,000 Americans are homeless — 40,000 of them veterans. The Good Samaritan Mission provides a place to sleep for up to 35 people per night.

Hole Food Rescue distributes excess food to organizations that serve at-risk residents of Teton County. Participating food retailers set aside unsellable, yet perfectly edible, food. Volunteers pick up these food donations and get them to local food pantries, shelters and after-school programs — 30 nonprofits in all.

The 35 percent drop in food insecurity from 2015 to 2108 in Teton County correlates with the emergence and success of Hole Food Rescue. I suspect it has made a real difference for a significant number of our friends and neighbors.

Wyoming has a miserable record on poverty, hunger and homelessness. We are the only state without a “food policy council” — an official group that works to address hunger issues in an informed and competent manner. We have the lowest participation rate in SNAP programs in America.

On homelessness Wyoming has received a failing grade from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for at least the past two decades. HUD funds homelessness efforts. Delaware, with a state population not much larger than Wyoming, receives more than $7 million a year from the federal government to combat homelessness. Wyoming gets less than $300,000. HUD prefers to give money to states whose programs are coordinated and well organized.

Perhaps the most ironic part of the picture of poverty and hunger in Wyoming and Teton County is the fact that the poorest among us pays the highest state and local taxes as a share of family income. We ask the most of those who have the least.

The Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy found that in Wyoming the poorest 20 percent pay 9.6 percent of their income in state and local taxes. The middle pays 7.2 percent and the top 1 percent pays 2.6 percent.

I hope our common ground commitment in Jackson Hole is that no one goes hungry here.

Happy holidays.

Paul W. Hansen is a lifelong conservationist and author of “Green in Gridlock: Common Goals, Common Ground and Compromise.” Columns are solely the opinion of their authors.