Academic journal article Social Justice

Commentary: The Nexus of Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness in New Mexico

Academic journal article Social Justice

Commentary: The Nexus of Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness in New Mexico

Article excerpt

Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness in New Mexico

NEW MEXICO HAS THE 13TH-HIGHEST RATE OF FOOD INSECURITY IN THE NATION, AND is tied with Mississippi for the highest poverty rate (Gabe, 2012). (1) One in four children do not know where they will get their next meal. (2) Across the state, there are more than 600 emergency food distribution sites (3) that serve more than 40,000 people a week. (4) In Bernalillo County, where one-third of the state's population lives, low-income residents missed an estimated 43 million meals in 2009. (5) Approximately 17,000 people in New Mexico are homeless, (6) including 5,000 children in the Albuquerque public school system who lack a place to live. (7) Despite the fact that most people in New Mexico are aware that New Mexico is a generally "poor" state, they are often shocked to learn the magnitude of these statistics. Expanding public understanding of the everyday impact of poverty is an important first step for generating public support to improve the lives of New Mexicans who struggle to put food on the table or to have a place to live. Yet, this understanding is difficult to achieve. The media and "popular wisdom" promote caricatured portraits of what it is like to be poor and offer faulty explanations for why people find themselves hungry or homeless. Critical social literacy that would allow people to comprehend the social, political, and economic forces that produce and sustain poverty is virtually nonexistent. Even more challenging, such critical literacy requires recognizing power dynamics that underpin these processes and the extent to which we are all implicated. It is never easy to see oneself as at fault.

A False Dichotomy

To galvanize public support for anti-hunger activities, advocates in New Mexico commonly refer to the frequency with which families are forced to "choose" between paying the rent or the mortgage and eating. A Hunger Study from the New Mexico Association of Food Banks found that 38 percent of people seeking emergency food assistance must make this calculated choice between eating and a place to live. (8) Yet, the decision between "food security" and "place security" that is being played out in homes throughout New Mexico is more complicated than this scenario suggests. The fear and anxiety embodied by this "choice" are a reality for thousands of New Mexicans who live in poverty or at its brink. That so many are forced to confront this tragic dilemma regularly is horrifying. People need to eat, so we understand this as a priority. Often unacknowledged, however, is the extent to which a dwelling is more than just a place. In our culture, people's lives and people themselves are defined by where they live, how they live, and the material things they surround themselves with. People derive a sense of personal security and satisfaction from being able to "nest." One housing advocate told me, "if you don't have a place to be, you can't be anything."

What happens when choosing between making a rent payment or eating becomes irrelevant since you have already lost your place to live--with the inherent insecurity that implies? You have no space to call your own, to relax in, feel safe in, where you can safeguard your possessions. How, then, can you be anybody? Ironically, although choosing between eating and paying the rent is done under the auspices of cost-benefit thinking, in the end, losing that security of "place" may make it less likely that you will eat. It becomes extremely difficult to store and cook food when you lack a space in which to live; moreover, when you lose your home, you also lose the social networks connected to your living space. These networks may have kept you financially or emotionally afloat, and helped you weather personal and family crises (Cintron-Velez, 2002: 161).

In reality, the tradeoff between eating and paying bills that might "keep you in place" is a false dichotomy that contradicts affluent sensibilities in a society intoxicated by the glorification of the individual. …

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