The Department of Agriculture has now declared more than 1,297 counties across 29 states as disaster areas due to a severe drought that is unlike anything seen since 1956. Food prices will surely rise as major crops of corn, wheat and soy wither on the vine. Energy prices will also be affected, since 40% of the corn crop is used to produce ethanol. America exports more than half of the world's corn and we are also the leading exporter of wheat and soy, so this crisis will not just be felt here at home.
The heat and drought will also likely cause more cattle ranchers to cut their herds due to the prohibitive costs of bringing in feed for their cattle from other states. Selling off herds has already begun, resulting in higher costs for beef and dairy products. That once reasonable staple of most families -- chicken - will also cost more as the price of their feed rises, too. An estimated loss of $50 billion has been forecast for the American economy, at a time when we can least afford it. What's worse, the summer is not even half over, and one can only imagine what else may befall us in the coming weeks.
Along with the drought, we are witnessing other extreme weather conditions, like temperatures of over 100 degrees -- for weeks in some communities -- as well as hurricane force winds toppling trees onto homes and causing electrical outages, hail, flooding, lightning and in those drier parts of the country, wild fires leveling hundreds of homes -- like in Colorado Springs -- and leaving a devastated moonscape in their paths. How many homeowners have we seen thrown into the streets, watching the greatest and most precious investment of their lives go up in smoke, taking with it decades of family memories and security? Are the weather gods finally unleashing their fury on us, telling the heartless (and clueless) GOP to stop their evasion and denial and acknowledge that global warming is a reality once and for all? Our very lives are in jeopardy, and this crisis must be dealt with, as it should have been decades ago.
Shortly, the rise in food prices at our local supermarkets will include numerous other food products if this extreme weather attack continues. The diminishing, hard-working middle class is already strapped beyond reason, and will now have to struggle with extending further the buying power of their shrinking dollars. Other hard hit groups will be the poor and the homeless, that invisible population that both the Dems and Republicans fail to address or even acknowledge -- they live in the shadows. It is our national shame that hunger and homelessness still exists in this, the richest of all nations.
As our economy still sputters, the numbers of homeless will continue to rise. In New York City, unemployment has now reached 10%, and the number of homeless has doubled in the past decade, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, a New York City-based advocacy organization doing remarkable work with limited resources. Another stalwart in this battle is the National Coalition for the Homeless. The poverty rate in New York City has risen to 21.3%, and more shocking is that each night in the richest city on the planet, 43,000 are homeless, including 17,000 children. And while banksters and CEO's on Wall Street are raking in more money than ever, 1,500,000 people now live in poverty in the Empire State. One in four low income New Yorkers spends half of their income on rent, leaving $4.40 per household member for food, transportation, medical and education costs.
No new public housing has been built in New York City since the end of the Second World War, and long waiting lists are the norm for the decrepit housing units that do exist, wherever that may be. Affordable housing is disappearing, but "Big Box" shopping centers are being built everywhere, offering low wage jobs and paltry -- if any -- benefits. This is a profile of just one American city, but this story is multiplied many times over across the country. This story was first recounted by Jacob Riis in his groundbreaking 1890 book, How The Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, and was retold by John Kenneth Galbraith in his The Affluent Society in 1958, and by Michael Harrington with The Other America in 1962, and in 2001 by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed. Also becoming relevant again today is John Steinbeck's look at the dust bowl of the thirties in his The Grapes of Wrath. All of these books are classics that should be on the mandatory reading lists of every student and politician alike in modern day America.
The current drought sweeping through dozens of states is most likely a harbinger of more such bad times to come. Today's food pantries and soup kitchens are strapped for funds, with increasing daily demands to feed more and more needy Americans. Their former stocked shelves are now often bare, forcing them to turn people away. Twenty million Americans earn $9,000 a year or less, and about 75 million Americans earn $34,000 or less, according to Peter Edelman, director of Georgetown University's Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy -- yet the GOP seeks to cut $4.5 billion from the food stamps program, an imperative lifeline for these vulnerable Americans.
Meanwhile, only 400 of the super rich own more wealth than 185 million of us combined. Congress is still dithering about raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to at least $10.50, which would still leave a family of four below the poverty line, but would throw needed dollars into circulation and boost the economy. Among the 48 million Social Security retirees, an average of $15,000 per year is paid out in benefits, even as the GOP considers these retirees who paid into the system for their entire working careers as freeloaders. Every day, seniors wrestle with the decision to see their doctor, purchase needed medications or buy food due to the rising costs. Why should these choices even be necessary in our America?
These are all issues our president should talk about on the campaign trail and expose the GOP and its malevolent intent. Increasing the minimum wage and cost of living increases in Social Security benefits (which has been delivered once in the past four years) could perk up the economy, while offering direct assistance to low wage earners and seniors to put food on their tables for themselves and their families. Increase both annually and make sure they track to inflation. A new website by the Institute of Policy Studies has been set up to address some of these issues: inequality.org. They provide data analysis and commentary on wealth and income disparity. Barbara Ehrenreich is now heading up the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Its aim, according to Ehrenreich, is "to force this country's crisis of poverty and economic insecurity to the center of the national conversation." Food insecurity might be added to the Ehrenreich mandate, as well as demanding a real climate change policy for America and all developed and developing nations. All of humanity is being affected by climate change, and it must be dealt with on a global scale.
Each year in the United States, 3.5 million people are homeless, with 100,000 homeless vets. If you are homeless, you are also hungry, and you likely don't know where your next meal will come from. Is this really America? There is a far-reaching bill in Congress that has been languishing for years that addresses homelessness, housing, healthcare, income and civil rights, all of the factors affected by extreme poverty. The bill is the "Bringing America Home Act" H.R. 4347, that seeks to end homelessness, introduced in the 109th Congress by Rep. Julia Carson (D-IN). She died in 2007 while preparing to reintroduce the bill yet again. Who in Congress will have the courage to make this a campaign issue and reintroduce this crucial Bill?
From November 10-18 this year, thousands of Americans in major cities will take to the streets with a goal of ending homelessness in America. It is rightfully being organized as the National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. We should all get our walking shoes out for this one and join them.
- with Jonathan Stone