How poor is West Virginia

Hunger in the US: "Many have cried"


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A Monday morning in the 45,000-inhabitant city of Huntington in the state of West Virginia: Vans and trucks stop at the ramp of an old warehouse, volunteers with face masks and mobile barcode scanners sort boxes and load pallets of canned soup, packages with cakes and boxes of vegetables . This is the headquarters of Facing Hunger. The organization supplies food banks in the border area of ​​West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. Around 562 tons of food, over ten million meals, have already gone to needy families this year.

Mountain State West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the USA, partly because the coal industry is suffering. In mid-2019, 16 percent were living below the poverty line. According to statistics from the beginning of 2020, almost 270,000 of the roughly 1.8 million inhabitants do not have enough to eat. At the same time, the region is badly affected by the corona pandemic: While the number of cases in spring remained low compared to other states, it is now skyrocketing. Church services in the often secluded mountain settlements are considered to be super-spreader events.

Cynthia Kirkhart, everyone just calls Cyndi, has headed Facing Hunger since 2014. The trained psychologist grew up 15 miles from Huntington's disease, grew up "very rural", as she herself says, and knows the problems many people face firsthand. Applications and brochures are piled up in her small corner office, the phone rings again and again, and in between comes a young woman who would like to help out as a volunteer. Kirkhart gathers her three closest employees for a meeting two to three times a day. She is proud of that, so far no one has been infected with Corona.

ZEIT ONLINE: Ms. Kirkhart, how many people do you provide food donations in your catchment area?

Cynthia Kirkhart: Before the pandemic it was 129,000, then demand skyrocketed. In the meantime there have been around 200,000 people. At the moment we are around 15 percent above the usual, that is around 150,000 clients.

ZEIT ONLINE: Why is it that the number has fallen again?

Kirkhart: The unemployment benefits applied for and the checks from the stimulus packages have helped for a while. Many of them could then go to the supermarket and buy the bare minimums themselves instead of having to rely on us. But depending on how quickly this additional money is used up, you have to decide: do I pay my rent or do I buy something to eat? In many cases the fixed costs are covered first - at the expense of the budget for food.

ZEIT ONLINE: Who are the people who seek help from the boards?

Kirkhart: 89 percent are families, senior citizens, people with disabilities and the homeless. So-called underemployed families make up the majority of our clients. This means that one or more family members have a job but do not earn enough to support the family. They often have several part-time jobs at the same time, for example in a restaurant and also as babysitters.

ZEIT ONLINE: Why is there still not enough money?

Kirkhart: In this region in particular, it is a major problem that employers only advertise part-time positions for which they do not have to pay any social benefits. But here you take any job you can get. In addition, the workplace is often far away from home and public transport is hardly available in many areas. You need a car that you also have to pay for the gasoline for, or family or friends who take you with them. Or you have to pay someone to drive you. The budget quickly falls into a precarious area.

ZEIT ONLINE: These are problems that could have threatened the existence of the country before Corona. To what extent has the pandemic exacerbated poverty?

Kirkhart: Let's stay with the example of mobility. Previous safety nets such as driving services for seniors and people with disabilities were no longer available. And even if you have your own car: Churches, for example, are often closed due to the corona, which is why around ten percent of our distribution points have disappeared. We are therefore relying more on mobile distribution, including with a drive-through model, and try to help people as directly as possible.