The modern American breadline

bread-line1During the Great Depression, poor Americans would line around the block waiting in line for a bit of bread, photos of which are taken as evidence of just how bad things got during the 1930s. Today, there is still poverty in the United States – about 50 million Americans are poor, according to the official account – but we don’t have bread lines (too much gluten); instead, as I saw Thursday at a farmers’ market in Los Angeles, we have “WIC” lines, in which hundreds of women with young children waited nearly 2 hours for just $20 in vouchers to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.

At first, I thought maybe I’d stumbled across some sort of radio promotion or, this being LA, the taping of some mediocre television. There was a crowd of around 200 people 2014-07-17 15.51.31outside the East Hollywood subway station when I got there and the crowd kept growing, a stark sight at three in the afternoon, a time when, if people had jobs, they would probably be at them. But jobs are hard to come by these days, particularly in this part of town home to a large number of immigrants from Thailand and the Americas but very few employers – and even fewer willing to offer more than $9 an hour for a retail job.

What I came across was the modern equivalent of the breadline. Minutes after arriving, I noticed there were several women making their way through the crowd wearing bright orange shirts emblazoned with “WIC” on the front of them; as it turns out, they were setting up a table not to give away a Kia, but to distribute vouchers for the adjacent farmers’ market as part of the federally-funded “Women, Infants and Children Program,” an initiative to provide poor mothers with healthy food. The program has nearly 1.5 million participants in California alone, most of whom appeared to be in East Hollywood that day.

2014-07-17 15.51.09The striking thing about it all, the thing that made me realize yet again that things are much worse than portrayed on the evening news, is that these impoverished women with young children waited in line for hours for just $20. Speaking to one of the woman, I learned they had actually been promised $40 in vouchers: $20 from WIC and another $20 from a program called “Market Match,” which had a table right next to the women with orange shirts. Unfortunately, the Market Match program only had $260 to hand out, which meant just 13 out of the hundreds of women who came got the full $40. “Come back next week,” they were told.

About an hour after I arrived, two deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department showed up; someone had called to complain about the sizeable crowd and so the armed wing of the government dutifully came looking to see if the actually-doing-some-good arm of the state had all the proper permits.2014-07-17 16.55.39

“Don’t you actually have any real crime to investigate?” one of the young mothers waiting in the WIC line asked the deputies, who were polite enough – a little apologetic, actually – but certainly not a welcome sight to those who are part of communities that the police traditionally like to harass. The deputies pretended not to hear the question, which was probably for the best (one of the young questioner’s friends told her to quiet down, pointing out she couldn’t take care of her kid if she were in jail).

The proper permits had been obtained, so the police soon left and money for the farmers’ market continued to be handed out. It was encouraging to see some good being done, even if it was only $20 worth of good, and reassuring to see that people actually do want to eat fresh fruits and vegetables – if they can afford them. Of course, the discouraging thing about it all was that any of it was necessary; that women were being forced to wait hours for a paltry amount of money to feed their babies. But such is life for the millions of poor in this, the richest country in the world.

About Charles Davis

A writer and producer with whose work has aired on television and radio and been published by outlets such as Al Jazeera, The Intercept, The Nation and The New Republic.
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1 Response to The modern American breadline

  1. Ken Cruz says:

    The USA is not the richest country in the world.
    The USA does have the biggest economy, but when that gets shared across 320 million people, it means the wealth of the average American is top 10 globally, but towards the bottom of that list. And falling.

    The USA has the biggest economy, but even that boast will disappear soon. China’s economy will be bigger and pass the USA GDP, sometime around 2017. When that is shared around China’s 1.3 billion people though, the average American will be 5x wealthier. Of course there’s the additional awkward fact that wealth in the USA is heavily skewed towards the very top.

    Part of the problem in the USA is the inability to accept where it’s at.
    Without trying to go into a Will McAvoy style factual rant (The Newsroom) the USA isn’t no.1 in a vast range of economic, health and social metrics. It’s not Obama, as this trend has been clear for 20 years. The first step to addressing some of these problems is a realistic view of where the USA is currently positioned.

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