Thursday, June 26, 2008
Locally, here in Sacramento, the food banks are being overwhelmed:
As skyrocketing food and gasoline prices strain budgets, utilities are disconnecting many more customers who fall behind on their bills, and even moderate-income households are getting zapped.
Electricity and natural gas shutoffs are up at least 15% in several states compared with last year. Totals for some utilities have more than doubled.
"We're seeing a record number of shutoffs," says Mark Wolfe, head of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, which represents programs that subsidize energy bills.
An NEADA survey this month shows 8% of four-member households earning $33,500 to $55,500 have had their power turned off for non-payment. "It's hitting people in the suburbs with two cars and two kids," Wolfe says.
The disconnects are rising as warm-weather power bills increase, some state moratoriums on winter shutoffs expire, and rates are climbing in many states.
Service is typically restored within days after customers work out payment plans, but even brief outages can pose a health hazard on sweltering days. Still, customers typically pay the mortgage and car payment before utility charges, as they can usually buy more time from the power or gas company.
Construction workers are really struggling:
In 18 years of running Francis House, a C street refuge for the down and out in Sacramento, director Gregory Bunker has never seen so many desperate people.
They start forming a ragged line around 8 most mornings, 90 minutes or more before the charity opens its doors.
"For the first time ever, 20 or 30 people are inside the gate before we open for the day," Bunker said. Some wait for hours to get a referral for a bag of food, or a $10 gas voucher. Some get turned away.
Hammered by $50 fill-ups and $3 gallons of milk, more and more people classified as "the working poor" are swelling the ranks of clients at agencies like Francis House. At the same time, charities are struggling with shrinking budgets, higher food and fuel prices and fewer donations, according to Bunker and others.
"It's a vicious circle," said Dave Martinez, interim director of the Placer Food Bank. "More people are coming in, and we have less to give them."
Francis House is facing an unprecedented $80,000 budget deficit and a 25 percent increase in demand for its services, and will soon end its gas voucher program. River City Community Services in midtown has seen a 40 percent jump in clientele since last fall. Wellspring Women's Center in Oak Park is seeing at least 50 more people each day than it did a year ago. Virtually every food pantry contacted by The Bee is feeling the pinch of a poor economy and skyrocketing costs for basic staples.
"Last Saturday, we fed almost 200 families, and a lot of them told us that they were working full time and just not making it," said Blake Young, director of the Sacramento Food Bank. "They need us to help them get through the month."
Meanwhile, we continue to see reports of an imminent attack upon Iran by either the US or Israel, with Israel allegedly carrying out a rehersal earlier this month. And, how does Congress respond? By pushing through a bill that imposes sanctions upon Iran and encourages the US to interdict Iranian shipping on the high seas.
In Placer County, where the home building industry has been hit particularly hard, "we're seeing mostly construction workers, home industry and home improvement workers," said Martinez. "If we can supplement their food, that means a couple more gallons of gas for them so they can get to jobs."
Instead of dealing with the deepening economic crisis that is impoverishing more and more people, the President and the Congress accelerate towards a military conflict with the Iranians. At first glance, it seems irrational, but upon further reflection, there is a perverse logic.
Neither political party is willing to mobilize the public around an agenda that would provide meaningful relief, as that would entail an abandonment of neoliberal policies that substitute the market and the decisions of finance capitalists for the government in the making of economic policy. It would require a level of government intervention for people, instead of banks and brokerage houses, that would be unprecedented since the Great Society, and possibly the New Deal.
So, what is the alternative, when the political elite isn't willing to address growing poverty amongst the populace? The answer is obvious: war. In this instance, a war with Iran would provide an after the fact explanation for the hardship that many Americans are already experiencing. It would also have the grotesquely salutary effect of expanding this hardship across most socioeconomic groups, creating the accurate impression that almost all Americans are in this together.
Of course, there is a downside, most notably the prospect that a lot of Americans would be killed in such a conflict, and that it could spiral out of control. Social conditions could deteriorate so much that it becomes impossible to maintain order. But the President and the Congress have already put measures in place to deal with that, haven't they? And, when someone exposes a gap, like the legal exposure for telecommunications companies when they carry out the President's request for illegal wiretaps, Congress fills it.
Has this been conscious and deliberate? That is a question for future historians. But the practical consequences are clear. As I have said before, it appears that the only people preventing the politicians from leading us over the cliff are high ranking generals within the Pentagon. It's a funny thing for an anti-imperialist, anti-militarist leftist like me to say. The ability of anyone within the political system to resist the march towards war is non-existent.