There is a food pantry at Zion Lutheran Church in Gasport that is open once per month. Back in January of this year, 22 families used this critical service. Last weekend, 41 families did.
That increase is outcome of the COVID economy. It’s a substantial number, too, given how small Gasport is: The Census Bureau says the population within the hamlet proper is just over 1,200 people. That means if all those individuals hail from the immediate area, 10 percent of area residents are relying on the charity to get by.
If you tell those numbers to anyone, and specifically Gasportians, it’s met with amazement. They’ll claim that Gasport doesn’t look like it’s saddled with poverty and that they hardly know anyone in need.
That’s the problem with poverty. It sneaks up on you. It often doesn’t look like it should and appears in places you’d least expect.
That’s especially the case in rural and small town America.
We all know the inner-cities are impoverished. It grabs the attention of the press, academia, and policymakers. And, it grabs a disproportionate amount of money and energy in the war on poverty.
Rural poverty, on the other hand, remains under the radar. You almost never hear about it on the nightly news and it’s even rarer yet to hear an elected official cast a spotlight on it.
Maybe it’s because it’s less noticeable than it is in the big city. Rural poverty is less centralized and more spread-out through a given community with low-income families living next door to middle or high income folks. You don’t get that in cities where social classes tend to be segregated.
Maybe it’s because it’s fly-over country. The population centers, for better or worse, dictate thought and public policy throughout America. Everything outside of the likes of Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami is meaningless to powerbrokers. We see that here in the Empire State in spades – New York City lawmakers determine what happens across the state, much to the detriment of upstate.
Regardless of why it’s ignored, it’s a problem nonetheless and, as many will find surprising, one greater than that of the cities.
Prior to the COVID crisis (its impact won’t be shown in government statistics until mid-next year) 13 percent of the population in urban locales was considered impoverished while 16 percent of rural and small town Americans were.
That accounted for 10 million Americans living below the poverty line in towns identical to those where this newspaper is circulated.
Worse yet, of those 10 million people, a majority of them are children. While you may not know their circumstances in the home, it’s more than likely you know many of those kids. They could be your neighbors.
As the president of the board of the local Boy Scout council which serves eastern Niagara and the GLOW counties, I tell people all the time that we not a social club for boys, but rather a social service organization. Our duty is to deliver education and development to children, in need and out of need, to help them rise above any obstacles in their lives and prepare them for careers and parenting.
When one looks at how the youth served by our council are besieged by poverty, you’ll understand my social service designation.
In Medina, 12 percent of the population under the age of 18 lives below the poverty line while in Batavia that rate is 29 percent. In Geneseo it’s 31 percent and in Albion it’s 37 percent.
Or, on a more macro scale, consider the poverty rate for minors in each of the counties under our jurisdiction: Wyoming (17 percent), Niagara (18 percent), Livingston (19 percent), Genesee (20 percent), and Orleans (25 percent).
Basically, 1-out-of-every-5 or 1-out-of-every-4 kids are impoverished in this region.
That’s why our local school districts have so many free or discounted breakfast and lunch programs. In order to best utilize the wonderful public resources that our public schools offer, the children there need to be nourished or it’s all for naught.
That’s why food pantries are tested to their limits. 42 families at Gasport’s food pantry last Saturday? That’s a lot. But it pales in comparison to the food distributions seen in Orleans County. Hundreds of families line up at a time. Quite often when the Orleans Hub reports on these modern day bread lines, their photos show cars are lined up for blocks or miles. It’s a heartbreaking visual that puts it all into a palpable perspective.
Most people wouldn’t expect such abject poverty in God’s Country. I don’t care if they’re visiting from a suburb or living right here in the epicenter. The unparalleled beauty and bounty of the fields and forests seem to do a fine job in hiding the fact that are some truly ugly circumstances plaguing our rural communities and economies.
Food insecurity was really bad before 2020. The COVID crisis has made and will make things even worse. It’s time we brought this out of hiding and did our best as a people to initiate the economic policies, locally and nationally, and sustain the charity and volunteerism to bring opportunity and prosperity to those who have been deprived of hope for far too long.
From the 21 December 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News