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Backing Obama but still hungry for change

As early as 5 a.m. on most Friday mornings the hungry begin to gather at the food pantry run by Sister Lauria Fitzgerald in the Bronx.
People wait in line to receive free milk from the Milk from the Heart program which makes weekly deliveries to Washington Heights and 12 other locations in Manhattan and the Bronx on October 6, 2011 in New York City.  As the economy throughout the...
People wait in line to receive free milk from the Milk from the Heart program which makes weekly deliveries to Washington Heights and 12 other locations in...

As early as 5 a.m. on most Friday mornings the hungry begin to gather at the food pantry run by Sister Lauria Fitzgerald in the Bronx. They take a number and wait hours to to be called. The savvy ones get there first, or at least early enough to scoop up the pantry’s limited fresh meats and canned goods, whole grains, beans and rice.

The not so lucky, and there seem to be more of them these days, often trek from far-off  sections of the Bronx only to be turned away. The decades-old pantry can feed only 100 to 120 families a week. There simply isn’t enough food to feed the multitudes of the neighborhood’s hungry. By 10 a.m. the shelves are picked bare and need restocking.

By 11 a.m., when the pantry closes, the food is wiped out completely.

“It’s bleak,” Sister Fitzgerald, who has run the pantry for the High Bridge Community Life Center for more than two-decades, told msnbc this week. “Very bleak, and a big part has to do with housing. Most people cannot afford the rent, so they try and budget but some of their food money goes to the rent. They just don’t have enough.”

Across the country, in impoverished urban communities and into the spreading reach of the suburban poor, families continue to struggle with food insecurity and shelter issues in the still-settling dust of the Great Recession. Unemployment rates, while slowly coming down across much of the nation, remain high in places like the Bronx, with exorbitantly high poverty and school dropout rates. These communities are home to huge immigrant populations, or native, low-skill, low-wage workers who’ve been hit hardest in the economic downturn.

Four years after the election of President Barack Obama and on the eve of the start of his second term, the nation’s poor communities show how much more work must be done to secure the livelihoods of the most vulnerable Americans.

But with federal budget cuts and Congress at loggerheads over what entitlements to cut, what programs to fund and what direction to take deficit reduction efforts, the nation’s poor continue to be battered. “The number of people who are poor or near poor went from 81 million in 2000 to 107 million in 2010. This is like a quantum leap,” said Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institution and a co-director of its Metropolitan Policy Program. “It’s hard for me to understand why the nation’s decision makers don’t get up every day and recite that number every day when they’re looking in the mirror. We now have a third of our people who are poor or near poor.”

The 15th Congressional District, where High Bridge is in the Bronx, is the poorest in the country. And while some voters in the district have expressed their frustrations with the Obama administration on immigration reform and with Congress over threatened cuts to aid programs and block grants, Obama still won the district with 97% of the vote. The president won the Bronx as a whole with 91% of the vote, the second highest margin in the country.

"I'm proud to say that the Bronx came out in big numbers for the president," said Ruben Diaz, Jr., the Bronx Borough President and the borough's biggest cheerleader. “We're proud of the president and we are not only proud of the fact that we supported him four years ago and we were able to be a part of history, electing the first African-American president of the U.S., but we also elected a pretty damn good one. Look at the issues, the substance, whether he's been able to get his agenda through Congress or not, we know he speaks to issues that people in the Bronx care about."

Critics and supporters alike, though, say the president, amid a fight for the hearts, minds and votes of the middle class, has never made poor people a priority, a point brought up time and time again by those who say neither Obama nor his Republican counterparts dared even mention the word "poverty" during the early debates or campaign.

“Because New York State (and other solidly, mostly urban Democratic areas) was never in play, there wasn’t ever a reason to talk about poverty there, or what life might be like in Brooklyn, the Bronx or say Buffalo,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University, who happens to also be a Bronx native. “Unless you are in a city like Cleveland in Ohio or in Detroit when Michigan was in play, your issues never bubble up to a national perspective. That makes it difficult for the community to hold national leadership accountable.”

The impact of the recession on local economies and unemployment rates varies regionally and from one metropolitan area to another, Katz, of the Brookings Institute, said, but for those communities already losing economic footing or stagnant, the recovery is even further hampered. Many of these same communities are trapped in a vicious cycle, from failed education system to low employment to violence and crime, all of which experts and analysts say are birthed from the same womb: poverty, neglect and failed urban policy.

“We’re in worse shape than we were four years ago,” said Kwame Kenyatta, a member of Detroit’s city council. “The automobile industry is in better shape because the president and his administration rightly saw to it to bail  them out. But what they didn't do is bail out the city that was hurting as a result of people being laid off and the dismal housing market here, the savings and loan crash. It’s not just the city of Detroit. It’s cities in New Jersey and Chicago, too. All these cities are hurting.”

Kenyatta said he sees the hurt all over his city, plagued with suburban flight and poverty and violence. But what he doesn’t see, he said, is the Obama administration putting forth a robust urban renewal, a plan for a so-called “urban renaissance.”

“Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac got bailed out,” he said. “The big execs got bonuses. But the people losing their homes or struggling to feed their families didn’t get bonuses.”

According to a U.S. Census Bureau report released last year, the median household income fell slightly, while the poverty rate remained at a two-decade high and the income gap between the rich and poor continued to balloon to its widest in more than 40 years.

Another report by the Department of Agriculture showed that between 2010 and 2011 alone the number of poor Americans who were food insecure, who either ran short on food or had to skip meals because they couldn't afford any jumped by 800,000.  And while a record number of people were applying for and enrolled in the food stamp program, such aid has been threatened with Congressional cuts. Analysts say cuts to food aid and nutrition programs would disproportionately affect pregnant women, mothers and children.

“I find it hard to believe that a country who cried for children that were shot in a school last month, would be so quiet about children in school who don’t have enough food or live below the poverty line,” said Margarette Purvis, the president and CEO of the Food Bank of New York City, the country’s largest food bank network. “Five hundred and twenty thousand New York City kids are living below the poverty line and everyone should feel sick and be crying over that.”

Because of federal emergency food cuts, the Food Bank of New York was down 11 million meals last year, Purvis said. “That food supply is the backbone, the heart of how we get this work done,” Purvis said. “It’s bad and it’s going to get worse.”

Since 2007, just before the recession, New York City has lost about 25% of its soup kitchens and food pantries, Purvis and others say. They’re disappearing from communities like the South Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem where they’re needed most.

The Food Bank of New York detailed the extent of the hunger gap in a recent report, NYC Hunger Experience 2012: One City, Two Realities, which highlighted the swelling gap between the city's poor and more prosperous residents. “Every year we’re taking cuts to education, to healthcare and the person that that hurts the most are those people who need those services,” said Chauncy Young, a community organizer for High Bridge Community Life Center. “It’s really quite frightening. You look at the difference between the Upper West side, the Upper East Side and what availability and access they have to crucial needs. We’re only a couple miles apart but its two different worlds.”

Sister Fitzgerald said she has seen food pantries disappearing in her High Bridge neighborhood where she runs her weekly pantry. “We lost two,” she said. “It really makes it difficult.”

Gone, she said are the old days when she would venture out to the old lots or where the old Bronx Terminal Market once stood, where the street workers and the homeless, the delusional and dejected would gather. She'd give them food and clothing, warm clothes or a warm word. She'd be led underground, or under bridges or overpasses to find ailing souls. But the market was torn down, replaced by the comparatively gleaming Gateway Mall. Media attention and city efforts to rid the streets of the homeless forced many of them from their shadowy haunts.

"A good number of them got housed or went to jail or died,” Fitzgerald said. But the work goes on and these days more and more of the habitual homeless are finding their way to her pantry shelves. But so are working families not pulling in enough money to feed their families. And so are the women and mothers on public assistance, some who make such little money they can't even qualify for low-income housing. (She said she recently helped two young women fill out an application for such housing, only to discover the minimum income to qualify was $16,000 a year. Neither of them made over $2,000 a year.)

While others talk of government cuts and their impact, Fitzgerald said she makes due with what she has. “I’m not one of those ones that is a visionary,” Fitzgerald said. “Some are systematic, they want to change systems. Others are direct service, and I’m direct service. I take the needs and address them.”

So when one grant gets cut, she shuffles funding from another. When the Summer’s stash of canned goods runs low, she pulls in some from the Winter stash.

“There’s still so much more work,” she said. “I think with times so hard, you never can do enough.”