Food crisis for seniors?

Concerns about hunger in King County have primarily focused on families with children.  Since the Great Recession, however, the need for food assistance among King County seniors has increased dramatically.

Food bank visits by seniors rose as visits by younger residents declined.

In 2016, for example, adult age 55 and older accounted for almost 1 in 3 food bank visits, up from 1 in 5 in 2010.  In the time period, the number of food bank visits decreased for all age groups except seniors, for whom the numbers of both new and returning clients increased.

The jump in use of food banks among King County seniors was paralleled by an increase in participation in Washington’s Basic Food program (formerly known as food stamps), which grew from 17,931 King County residents age 65+ in 2010 (9% of the 65+ population) to 28,426 (12%) in 2016.

Basic Food participation among seniors has increased in all major King County cities.

Increases have been especially steep in Tukwila, where 30% of seniors age 65+ participated in Basic Food in 2016.  Sharp increases have also occurred in the South Region cities of Kent, Seatac, Federal Way, Renton, Burien, and Auburn, with participation rates ranging from 15% to 22%.   All major cities in King County have experienced participation increases among seniors.  For other age groups, use of Basic Food peaked between 2012 and 2013 and has declined thereafter.

This trend isn’t just about food.  Steep increases in the cost of living in the Puget Sound region have exacerbated our homelessness problem, and can be difficult to afford on a fixed income.   It’s easy to understand why seniors might go without food or medication to keep a roof over their heads.  Even in times of economic expansion, food benefits may become increasingly important for the older members of our communities.

For more information, see Communities Count data on Basic Food, food hardship, and food bank trends, plus a link to an interactive map of food bank locations.

Is inequality a choice?

Yes, according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who writes, “… while we broadly lament inequality, we treat it as some natural disaster imposed upon us. That’s absurd. The roots of inequality are complex and, to some extent, reflect global forces, but they also reflect our policy choices.” Kristof cites a recent report that 2014 Wall Street bonuses were about twice “the total annual earnings of all Americans working full time at the federal minimum wage” (see 3/23/2015 Communities Count blog).

For suggestions of ways to counter inequality, he turns to a new book, Inequality: What Can Be Done, by British economist Anthony Atkinson. Among Atkinson’s 15 steps to reduce inequality:
■ Government should be more concerned with monopolies and competition policy.
■ Trade unions should be bolstered to represent workers’ interests.
■ Government should provide public-sector jobs at minimum wage to those who want them, in areas such as meals-on-wheels, elderly care, child care and so on.•
■ In addition to a minimum wage, there should be a framework to restrain pay at the highest levels. Atkinson cites companies that have voluntarily decreed that executive pay should be capped at 65 or 75 times the average pay in the firm.
■ Personal income taxes should be made more progressive, with a maximum rate of 65 percent.
■ Every child should get a “child benefit” payment, to help keep kids out of poverty.

Finally, Kristof poses the following question about how Congress responds to inequality (more than one choice could be correct):

Congressional leadership is showing resolve to slash —
A) subsidies for private jets;
B) the carried interest tax loophole for billionaires;
C) food stamps;
D) the estate tax on couples with estates worth more than $10.9 million.

The answers: C and D — policies that “would hurt low-income children while offering a helping hand to billionaires.” Kristof asserts that “the problem isn’t inequality; the problem is us. We’re paralyzed.”

For examples of inequality in King County, see Communities Count data on health insurance, perceived safety, homicide by neighborhood poverty and race/ethnicity, and poverty trends.

Unemployment is down; poverty isn’t.

Unemployment in King County has plunged from peak of 9.6% in early 2010 to only 4.5% in October of 2014. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Except that poverty hasn’t budged. As this month’s update of poverty data shows, 12% of King County residents of all ages and 16% of children under the age of 18 still live in poverty — exactly the same rates as in 2010. Because more people live in King County now than in 2010, though, these percentages include about 20,000 more residents in poverty. Updated data on poverty by race/ethnicity show a similar lack of improvement. Especially troublesome is the finding that more than 1 in 3 Blacks in King County was living below the Federal Poverty Threshold in 2013 — a significantly higher rate than that of almost all other racial/ethnic groups. While beneficial to many, our county’s “economic recovery” is decidedly uneven.