Photo by Rachel Zack/Flickr

Time: The Overlooked Poverty

‘There’s a lot of waiting involved in being poor.’

By Cristina Kladis

Imagine waking up in the morning and discovering that your usual form of transportation is gone. You have no car or Metro card, so you are forced to go to the nearest social services agency or nonprofit to arrange for transportation. You have neither the food nor the time for breakfast. If you want lunch, you have to make your way to another agency for food. The day is only half done.

For some, this is reality. Poverty leaves many people vulnerable and dependent on nonprofits and social service agencies to meet their most basic needs. This reliance can be like a full-time job, as it can consume hours of time every day.

“Time is becoming an ever-pressing problem,” said Paula Reichel, D.C. director of the Capital Area Food Bank.

Time poverty, an academic term for having a deficit of time, may be an issue people face at some point in their lives, but time poverty is also often linked with financial and food instability. In tandem, time poverty magnifies each of these issues.

Graphic by Kate Faherty

Tianna Gaines-Turner is a 35-year-old mother of three from Philadelphia, and she has been married for 14 years. She struggles to get enough food in her fridge each month. Her family of five does not own a car and relies on public transportation to go from jobs, grocery stores and food pantries throughout the city.

Like Gaines-Turner, often low-income individuals have to visit multiple service agencies to get their basic needs met. They sustain themselves in a way that people who do not have to rely on service agencies might not imagine having the time to do in a day. Instead of going to a local grocery store after work, food insecure individuals may have to travel for food to multiple social service agencies—in their neighborhood or even across state lines—while still working long hours or spending long hours looking for work.

“It’s exhausting,” Gaines-Turner said. “At times it can be humiliating.”

Gaines-Turner, who was in D.C. as part of Drexel University’s Witnesses to Hunger research project to bring awareness to hunger and poverty, described her family as living “paycheck to paycheck.” The family currently lives in government-subsidized housing, which they only found after being on a waitlist for 10 years.

Gaines-Turner is one of many mothers across the nation working to bring hunger awareness and national policy reform through The Center for Hunger-Free Communities. The mothers were given cameras to document hunger and poverty in their communities. Gaines-Turner’s photography was on display at the Rayburn House Office Building, down the street from Congress, on April 3 and 4.

Gaines-Turner said she knows what it is like waiting for hours simply to have a caseworker verify her need for federal assistance. Then she has to wait to receive food.

According to Gaines-Turner, sometimes when she arrives as a food bank’s doors open, the line can stretch around the block and take hours long to get through. She has to arrive hours before the food bank opens its doors to be near the front of the line. Both can be hard with kids, she said.

‘The food insecurity level is rising, and we see that in families who are working.’

— Paula Reichel, D.C. director of the Capital Area Food Bank

“It’s not instantaneous gratification when you get to the pantry,” Reichel said. “Oftentimes you spend time waiting in line to get services because most pantries operate on a first come, first serve basis.”

While many nonprofits and agencies exist, there are often bureaucratic and structural blocks that stand in the way of people receiving these services, said Zachari Curtis, the sustainable agriculture and community engagement manager of Bread for the City, which is a nonprofit that offers impoverished D.C. residents social services and other basic necessities.

“There’s a lot of waiting involved in being poor,” Curtis said.

This is why many nonprofits, such as D.C.’s Bread for the City, aim to include as many services in one location as possible. Bread for the City offers a food pantry, which provides emergency food to families whose SNAP benefits have run out or are in a food crisis, legal aid, which usually helps people with landlord/tenant issues, a medical clinic and other services, according to Curtis.

Assistance and services are structurally setup for people who already have resources, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, which is federal food assistance available to people living near or at the poverty line.

SNAP benefits are intended to support a person or family’s food budget, but for some families, emergency food sources are the only way of obtaining enough food to make it through an entire month.

“The reason that folks are having to go to emergency food providers, like food pantries and soup kitchens, is because the support provided by SNAP is not enough to meet their needs,” Reichel said. “If the benefit level of these programs were adequate to meet the needs, that would eliminate the time required for people to work outside of the government system to procure necessities.”

Many are calling for a restructuring of government assistance programs.

“There should be one universal application that you can fill out with all the information that the state needs, and the state can decide based on your various information the programs that you qualify for without having to fill out separate applications for each program,” said J.K. Granberg-Michaelson, hunger free communities coordinator at the Alliance to End Hunger.

Consolidating and simplifying the process of applying for different forms of federal and state aid could save people a lot of time, a precious resource, according to Granberg-Michaelson. Additionally, Granberg-Michaelson said that many states are trying to fix their currently cumbersome social services programs, but they are “still complicated and not really intuitive in a lot of states.”

In 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that over five million families contained at least one working individual, yet they lived below their respective poverty threshold. Today, a single person making less than $11,670 is living at the poverty line, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The food insecurity level is rising, and we see that in families who are working,” Reichel said. “We recognize that that group in particular has the most demand on their time. Because that group is being so strongly affected economically and is having to procure these services, that raises the profile of time as a critical measure that needs to be taken into account when planning these services.”

Over the next 10 years, $8.6 billion will be cut from SNAP. These cuts are expected to only affect certain areas of the country, as it closes a loophole that most areas of the country did not use. The SNAP cuts are expected to affect only a third of states and D.C. – and many states are staving off cuts in SNAP benefits for their residents by drawing from other federal funds.

If the cuts kick in, Reichel and Curtis expect an even greater need of food and assistance to overcome D.C. residents on SNAP.

“There are certain things you’re entitled to,” Gaines-Turner said. “Food is one of them.”

Samantha Hogan contributed to this report.