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Is Idaho the future?

One day this spring, Leora, more than eight months pregnant, went to visit her doctor in the little town of Caldwell, Idaho. He told her she was becoming malnourished. "I told him, 'Well, when the summer starts I'll eat better,'" she recalls. Leora, a U.S. citizen, and her husband, who is here illegally, have five children.

"I don't eat so that they can eat," she says. "They have to eat everything on their plate. Everything. Nothing can be left. If they leave it, we eat it. They get an apple, they have to split it three ways. We limit them from eating here in the morning unless it's oatmeal or cream of wheat. If I don't make that, they eat at school. The kids drink evaporated milk. It's forty cents a can. Dinner is normally rice, beans. Every day. Rice and beans and sopa."

Leora and her husband are also looking after two of his sister's children in the three-bedroom house they live in on a quiet residential block twenty miles from Boise. They scrabbled to get the $1,500 down payment on the $70,000 property, and paying the $700-a-month mortgage has pushed the family almost to the limit. When they fell behind on the mortgage after having to spend precious dollars on an operation for Leora's sister, they rented out one of the three bedrooms to a cousin. Because of that, the government temporarily stopped giving the family food stamps, forcing Leora to choose between relying on charity and not eating. And so the family relies on the largesse of the Rescue Mission, a Christian missionary group with offices in downtown Boise. It tallies the number of meals handed out, as well as the "decisions for Christ" taken by its clients.

In the summer months--the months Leora knows she'll be able to eat more--the whole family works in the fields, picking beets and other crops from dawn to dusk for a handful of dollars an hour. Leora grew up doing this work, her parents moving between Idaho and Arizona. This is the life she knows best. During the off time, Leora picks up some cash packaging and distributing the local phone book or looking after a friend's baby during the day. Her husband also works as a construction laborer, taking low-paying jobs from subcontractors who know not to ask questions about his immigration status.

All told, Leora estimates they bring in, through work, about $1,500 a month, supplemented at times by food stamps and disability checks, as Leora has been diagnosed as being bipolar.

Existing well below even the conservative federal poverty line for a family of nine or ten people, Leora's family would be unable to eat were it not for the Rescue Mission's periodic boxes of food.

Idaho represents the Republican Party's vision of Americas future. Hollow out state welfare services, reduce worker protections, let the minimum wage lose purchasing power, and export goods-producing jobs overseas while leaving the lower strata of the workforce ever more dependent on dead-end service jobs. In rural states like Idaho, relatively well-paying mining and timber jobs have vanished in the past decade. More and more people are worrying about how to put their next meal on the table, and an increasing percentage is actually going hungry at times.

"If you look at the average family income in Idaho," explains Dick Schultz, administrator of the State Division of Health, "you'll see the income is quite low compared to other states. The job market here is not necessarily the high-end job market."

In the 1990s, Idaho was somewhere in the midrange nationwide as far as hunger goes. Less than a decade later, according to studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Brandeis University's Center on Hunger and Poverty, it--along with its southern neighbor, Utah--is among the very worst in the country. From 2001 through 2003, 11 percent of Americans were reporting food insecurity (down from 11.3 percent in the late 1990s), but the figure for Idahoans was 13.7 percent. And while 3.4 percent of the country was reporting hunger, Idahoans came in at 3.9 percent. Though this might not seem like a huge difference, underlying these numbers was a 20 to 25 percent increase in hunger in Idaho over the past seven years.

Food banks and other charities have felt the difference. Four years ago, the Boise Rescue Mission gave out about 600 Christmas turkeys. Last Christmas, more than 1,800 families received them. In 2003, the Idaho Food Bank distributed slightly more than four million pounds of food. In 2004, that number was 5.5 million pounds.

"Idaho is the sixth worst hunger state in the nation," says Kathy Gardner, agency relations specialist with the food bank.

The pantries aren't handing out food just to the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill. Increasingly, it is the working poor who are reliant on this aid.

Tina Rojas, her husband, Ruben, and her three teenage children live in an old trailer on the outskirts of the little town of Homedale. Ruben used to work at a potato processing facility, making fairly decent money. But then it closed down. Now, they all work the orchards and fields, picking cherries, peaches, plums, asparagus, and onions. In a good week, the family will bring home somewhere in the region of $400. But more often, far less. When Tina and Ruben need extra money, they pawn their van, then painstakingly redeem it, at 25 percent interest, over the next several months.

Tina's husband, twenty years her senior, was recently diagnosed with a stomach tumor. Lacking health insurance but deemed not poor enough for Medicaid, the family can't afford the estimated $10,000 for an operation.

Tina grows vegetables out back of her trailer and, when the electricity is cut off because the bills haven't been paid, she cooks for her family atop an old iron potbelly stove in the cluttered living room. She longs for a big enough freezer to store the produce to supply the family throughout the winter. Yet even a secondhand freezer costs close to $200, and the family can't afford that.

"If it wasn't for the pantries," admits Tina, "we wouldn't be getting through the month. It tides us over for the last two weeks of the month--a good $75 to $80 of food. Bread, cans of corn."

An hour the other side of Boise, in the Wild West-styled ex-gold mining camp of Idaho City, Allen and his wife, Karyl, live in a large house on the edge of the woods. The house belongs to Karyl's mom. Since moving from Fort Worth, Texas, three years ago, Allen and Karyl have been struggling to make ends meet. Active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the couple has six young children, and the family is trying to survive on Allen's salary as a correctional officer. He is paid just over $11 an hour. Even with a couple hundred dollars a month extra thrown in because of his work as a communications specialist in the Army Reserves, the income barely covers the family's bills, let alone the food. The family strains under the weight of medical and dental insurance premiums, car insurance, student loans, and mortgage payments. They live on an undeveloped plot of land they bought with a small insurance settlement. Most of the family's food, the couple estimates, comes from donations made by their church. And Allen helps out at a food bank when he has time.

He says several colleagues at the prison also live with parents or in-laws because their salaries don't provide enough to pay rent. He knows at least four or five of them who admit to using local food pantries. "But we don't talk about it," he says. "They know I work for a food bank, but they don't know I rely on it."

On paper, Idaho is thriving. It has an unemployment rate of 4 percent, considerably lower than the national average. It boasts one of the highest rates of population growth of any state in the country, and it touts its high level of economic growth. Yet the jobs that are being created so fast are not paying the bills.

"It has to do with the cost of fuel, the cost of housing," says Rescue Mission Executive Director Bill Roscoe. "People are working but not earning enough money to meet their needs. For me to pay another fifty cents a gallon for gas isn't a big deal. For someone earning $8 an hour with two children, it's a huge deal."

For Allen, as the price of gas went up, he found he could no longer afford to make the daily commute from his mother-in-law's home in Idaho City to his job as a correctional officer near Boise. And so the thirty-four-year-old stays on a military reserve base three or four nights a week, leaving his wife and kids behind, returning only on weekends and for his Cub Scouts volunteer work on Wednesday evenings.

While Allen struggles to provide for his family, many of Idaho's residents are far worse off. Roscoe recalls one woman the Rescue Mission gave a turkey to last Christmas who worked seventy hours a week--as a secretary for a local attorney and as a salesperson at the local Wal-Mart--and she still couldn't afford to feed herself and her two children.

Another woman e-mailed the food bank to say that she and her husband "get to spend about $120 every two months on groceries and eat a lot of toast to chase the hunger away. We don't get fresh fruits and vegetables or cereals and milk. Those are luxury items. I am just a little fed up with sending my husband to work with no lunch, with no dinner."

The last Democratic governor left office in Boise in 1994. Since then, Republicans--riding the wave of "morals" politics and touting the pseudo-populist anti-governmentalism of the radical right--have controlled the entire state apparatus. With that power, they have imposed their laissez-faire vision. Idaho has some of the lowest state taxes in the country, and thus has attracted a fair share of wealthy, high-tech jobs (Micron and Hewlett-Packard both have campuses here) while being unable to fund basic public services. It is notoriously reluctant to support state welfare programs. The state kicked a higher percentage of its welfare recipients off of welfare in the year following Clinton's welfare reform act than did any other state. And in 2000, the legislature mandated that public agencies not inform clients about how to access state services.

"There's a schizophrenia about taxes and services," explains Sam Blair of the Idaho Community Action Network. "It's a framing of the issue that divorces taxes from the services which taxes sustain."

The result is rising hunger among working families in the middle of an economic boom.

In control of the White House, Congress, the Senate, a majority of state governorships, and, increasingly, with the allegiances of senior judges hostile to policies such as the minimum wage, the Republican Party has the opportunity to Idaho-ize America.

For those on the margins, the Aliens, Tinas, and Leoras of the world, this just might make the difference between three hot meals a day and a reliance on emergency food boxes and mission-donated Christmas turkeys.

Illustration by Christiane Grauert

Sasha Abramsky is a freelance writer based in Sacramento. His book "Conned," on voting rights in America, will be published by the New Press in 2006.
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Title Annotation:economic conditions
Author:Abramsky, Sasha
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1U8ID
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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