Desperate in Milwaukee

June 26, 2008

Nicole Colson reports on the backdrop to a near riot over rumored food vouchers outside a Milwaukee welfare office.

CHAOS BROKE out outside Milwaukee's main welfare office June 23 after as many as 3,000 people lined up, starting around 3 a.m., based on rumors that emergency food vouchers would be distributed to those in need when the center opened its doors on Monday morning.

The crowd grew so large that people began blocking traffic in the street. Fearing that there wouldn't be enough vouchers to go around, a number of people began to rush the door, and some people were caught in the crush. Several fights broke out, and at least 34 squad cars were sent to the scene.

The rush seems to have been sparked by Gov. Jim Doyle's announcement the week before that several Wisconsin counties, including Milwaukee, had become eligible for a Federal Emergency Management Agency program offering a month's worth of food stamps to people who incur damage in a declared disaster area and fall below a certain income threshold.

In reality, the Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center wasn't distributing food vouchers--only accepting applications for FoodShare, a state food stamp voucher program.

As many as 3,000 lined up for emergency food vouchers at a county government office in Milwaukee

But the long lines and the scramble to get to the doors show the desperation building up in the richest nation on earth. According to the media commentators, if American families face double-digit inflation in the prices of many food staples, at least things aren't as dire as countries like Egypt and Haiti, where surging prices and hunger have led to riots in the past several months.

Food riots, they say, could never happen in America.

Tell that to the desperate thousands who lined up in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee County Health and Human Services Department processed more than 2,000 applications for the FoodShare voucher program between June 19 and 20, but word of a seven-day applications limit appears to have spread last weekend, and when Monday came, no one was prepared for the massive numbers of people who came seeking help.

Some of those who lined up were victims of the power outages and recent flooding that have devastated portions of the Midwest. But many were residents who already had been desperately struggling to make ends meet, even before the floods.

That includes Jerry Lee, who told WUWM News that he came because "I need something on my table. I ain't working. Ain't no jobs, no nothing, so I have to do the best I can. You know a lot of people sleeping in the parks and stuff, so I'm kind of fortunate that I don't have don't have to sleep in the park. But yeah, the economy is rough."

Those seeking relief were disappointed, however, since once a person signs up for emergency food aid, it frequently takes at least seven days before they receive actual assistance. Others were told that the wait would be as long as 30 to 60 days.

"Now I have to try and get to a food pantry," a disgusted Yvonne Love told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I've got to feed my kids." Love, a mother of an 8-, 10- and 14-year-old said she had been told there would be immediate help while visiting a local food pantry over the weekend. She left the chaotic scene, running to catch a bus to a temporary employment agency.

AS THE Journal Sentinel pointed out, the chaos that broke out "had more to do with a weak economy and crushing poverty in parts of this community than the devastating floods that swept through the state earlier this month."

Poverty in Milwaukee is at epidemic levels. The city ranks as America's eighth-most impoverished city and fourth in the number of children living in poverty. An estimated 25 percent of Milwaukee residents--and 33 percent of school-age children--live below the official poverty line. Since the government only provides meals to schoolchildren aged 12 or younger who are in summer school during this time of year, children are particularly hard hit right now.

"Unfortunately, it strikes me that Milwaukee continues to be a leader in so many unfortunate measures, such as unemployment, mortgage rates, incarceration and segregation," Gregory D. Squires, chair of the sociology department at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told the Journal Sentinel in February.

You might think that after the scandalous treatment of the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the federal government would be responsive to the needs of those who are going hungry in America. After all, in the richest country on the planet, how hard could it be to meet the needs of the country's poor?

Too hard, apparently. Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee, an emergency food pantry, said that food donations from the government have dropped more than 30 percent since 2001. As the Journal Sentinel reported, "To keep up with the increasing demand, the Hunger Task Force purchases food. The Task Force purchased $3,400 worth for the first five months of 2007. Through May of this year, that number climbed to $92,000, Tussler said."

Bonnie Bellehumeur, president and CEO of America's Second Harvest of Wisconsin, told WUWM that the food aid organization is having difficulty keeping its shelves stocked this year because donations are down 15 percent, and food manufacturers and grocery stores--which used to give large quantities of food--are scaling back donations as a way to cut costs.

Meanwhile, requests for assistance are up as rising food and gas prices and unemployment take their toll on many families. Nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 10 percent of households are either at risk of, or experiencing, hunger today.

The number of families forced to rely on food stamp assistance has also shot up. In March, some 27.9 million Americans received food stamps--up 1.5 million, or 5.7 percent, from a year earlier. Nearly half of households receiving food stamp benefits have one or more working adults.

As Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines said at a press conference following the incident at the Coggs Center, "The food crisis in Milwaukee and throughout the United States is worse than many of us have realized. We expect long lines for free food in Third World countries. We don't expect a line of 2,500 people waiting for food vouchers [in Milwaukee]."

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