Fight poverty locally


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As winter approaches and the holiday season begins, Mayor Matt Hayek and the Iowa City City Council will issue a proclamation declaring this week Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in Iowa City. Hunger and homelessness, says the declaration, are issues “faced daily by hundreds of men, women, and children throughout our own community.”

Too often in our daily discourse and in our politics, the problem of poverty — that which leads too many to go hungry or without shelter — is ignored. But hunger and homelessness are only the most extreme, and most visible, symptoms of poverty. We must be mindful of poverty wherever it occurs, even when it is not readily apparent, and we should do all we can to help those in need.

Statewide, according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data, nearly 12 percent of Iowans lived below the poverty line in 2009. At the same time, almost 8 percent of Iowa’s families lived below the poverty threshold of $21,954 per year for a family of four. That’s more than 340,000 Iowans in poverty.

In Iowa City, the numbers are bleaker still. Data from the American Community Survey conducted by the Census Bureau suggest that almost 16 percent of Iowa City’s families may live in poverty.

During the 2010-11 school year, 29.6 percent of students in the Iowa City School District were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, up from 20.0 percent in 2004. For a family of four, the income limit for free school lunches is approximately 133 percent of the poverty threshold.

It is possible, though, that these numbers could understate the severity of the problems we face. The Census Bureau’s poverty threshold is adjusted annually for inflation using the federal Consumer Price Index, which does not accurately account for increases in cost of living. In other words, the buying power of a poverty-line income is falling incrementally as increases in health-care costs, for example, outpace increases in typical consumer goods.

It is, therefore, extremely difficult to define and measure poverty, let alone fight it. The Iowa City community has taken some admirable steps, however.

Iowa City’s Shelter House provides short-term housing for hundreds of people as well as employment training and counseling. An organization such as the Crisis Center operates a Food Bank, at which residents can receive groceries every week. Now, the city government is getting involved in raising awareness about the scourge of poverty.

In conjunction with community efforts, the National Coalition for the Homeless suggests getting involved on your own. Volunteer in a local shelter or food bank, and interact directly with those most deeply affected with poverty. Take an active role in local government and advocate for antipoverty measures.

It is important, especially as the weather begins to turn, to contribute whatever a person can to help those facing hunger and homelessness in Iowa City. No one should be left without food or a decent place to sleep. It is equally important, however, to remember that the problems of poverty go much deeper than their public manifestations. Too many people are suffering out of sight, and that is the real tragedy of poverty.

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