Desperate in Milwaukee

Chaos broke out outside Milwaukee’s main welfare office June 23 after as many as 3,000 people lined up, starting around 3 a.m., based on rumors that emergency food vouchers would be distributed to those in need when the center opened its doors on Monday morning.

The crowd grew so large that people began blocking traffic in the street. Fearing that there wouldn’t be enough vouchers to go around, a number of people began to rush the door, and some people were caught in the crush. Several fights broke out, and at least 34 squad cars were sent to the scene.

The rush seems to have been sparked by Gov. Jim Doyle’s announcement the week before that several Wisconsin counties, including Milwaukee, had become eligible for a Federal Emergency Management Agency program offering a month’s worth of food stamps to people who incur damage in a declared disaster area and fall below a certain income threshold.

In reality, the Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center wasn’t distributing food vouchers — only accepting applications for FoodShare, a state food stamp voucher program.

But the long lines and the scramble to get to the doors show the desperation building up in the richest nation on earth. According to the media commentators, if American families face double-digit inflation in the prices of many food staples, at least things aren’t as dire as countries like Egypt and Haiti, where surging prices and hunger have led to riots in the past several months.

Food riots, they say, could never happen in America.

Tell that to the desperate thousands who lined up in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee County Health and Human Services Department processed more than 2,000 applications for the FoodShare voucher program between June 19 and 20, but word of a seven-day applications limit appears to have spread last weekend, and when Monday came, no one was prepared for the massive numbers of people who came seeking help.

Some of those who lined up were victims of the power outages and recent flooding that have devastated portions of the Midwest. But many were residents who already had been desperately struggling to make ends meet, even before the floods.

That includes Jerry Lee, who told WUWM News that he came because “I need something on my table. I ain’t working. Ain’t no jobs, no nothing, so I have to do the best I can. You know a lot of people sleeping in the parks and stuff, so I’m kind of fortunate that I don’t have don’t have to sleep in the park. But yeah, the economy is rough.”

Those seeking relief were disappointed, however, since once a person signs up for emergency food aid, it frequently takes at least seven days before they receive actual assistance. Others were told that the wait would be as long as 30 to 60 days.

“Now I have to try and get to a food pantry,” a disgusted Yvonne Love told the Journal Sentinel. “I’ve got to feed my kids.” Love, a mother of an 8-, 10- and 14-year-old said she had been told there would be immediate help while visiting a local food pantry over the weekend. She left the chaotic scene, running to catch a bus to a temporary employment agency.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out, the chaos that broke out “had more to do with a weak economy and crushing poverty in parts of this community than the devastating floods that swept through the state earlier this month.”

Poverty in Milwaukee is at epidemic levels. The city ranks as America’s eighth-most impoverished city and fourth in the number of children living in poverty. An estimated 25 percent of Milwaukee residents — and 33 percent of school-age children — live below the official poverty line. Since the government only provides meals to schoolchildren aged 12 or younger who are in summer school during this time of year, children are particularly hard hit right now.

“Unfortunately, it strikes me that Milwaukee continues to be a leader in so many unfortunate measures, such as unemployment, mortgage rates, incarceration and segregation,” Gregory D. Squires, chair of the sociology department at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told the Journal Sentinel in February.

You might think that after the scandalous treatment of the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the federal government would be responsive to the needs of those who are going hungry in America. After all, in the richest country on the planet, how hard could it be to meet the needs of the country’s poor?

Too hard, apparently. Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee, an emergency food pantry, said that food donations from the government have dropped more than 30 percent since 2001. As the Journal Sentinel reported, “To keep up with the increasing demand, the Hunger Task Force purchases food. The Task Force purchased $3,400 worth for the first five months of 2007. Through May of this year, that number climbed to $92,000, Tussler said.”

Bonnie Bellehumeur, president and CEO of America’s Second Harvest of Wisconsin, told WUWM that the food aid organization is having difficulty keeping its shelves stocked this year because donations are down 15 percent, and food manufacturers and grocery stores — which used to give large quantities of food–are scaling back donations as a way to cut costs.

Meanwhile, requests for assistance are up as rising food and gas prices and unemployment take their toll on many families. Nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 10 percent of households are either at risk of, or experiencing, hunger today.

The number of families forced to rely on food stamp assistance has also shot up. In March, some 27.9 million Americans received food stamps — up 1.5 million, or 5.7 percent, from a year earlier. Nearly half of households receiving food stamp benefits have one or more working adults.

As Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines said at a press conference following the incident at the Coggs Center, “The food crisis in Milwaukee and throughout the United States is worse than many of us have realized. We expect long lines for free food in Third World countries. We don’t expect a line of 2,500 people waiting for food vouchers [in Milwaukee].”

18 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. evie said on July 1st, 2008 at 11:52am #

    I’m as quick to help the hungry as anyone (some here know we run a Sunday soup kitchen on our own dime). But – there is not a “food crisis” in the US. Yes, food prices are high – we along with many others shop, spend, and cook more frugally and eat more leftovers.

    Shall I tell you how part of the food lines at the moment are not from poverty and food crisis but rather misspent money? Perhaps some of those 2500 in Milwaukee fall into this category.

    Here’s how it works in my ‘hood. The first week we moved in, years ago, I turned down 3 offers to buy food stamps at 50 cents on the dollar. I still get the occasional knock on the door with that sales pitch.

    This past month I have listened to Latoya cry b/c she is 3 months behind on rent and with a bare cupboard, but has a new big screen tv and a trip to the boats (casinos on the Mississippi) thanks to her stimulus check.

    Kristee and Mike 33 y/o still living at home with mom and dad used their stimulus for an $800 prom dress their 15 y/o daughter will wear once, they just never seem to have any extra money to put away.

    I have heard Laquisha complain this week about her rent going up from $20 a month (section 8) to $60 because she is working a few hours now; she sells her stamps at $70 for $100.

    They all try to sell me bulk cheese, dried beans, and canned meat they receive from the local food bank.

    Then there’s Trey who used his wife’s last 2 paychecks for auto repairs b/c he needs his truck to look for a job (he’s been unemployed for 7 years, his wife walks to work even when the truck is running).

    And there’s Sue asking for gas money every other week as she struggles to hold her household together with her prescription junkie 30-something y/o son and his second wife and 5 kids in a blended family – Sue the only one working while son and girlfriend spend their puny disability checks (bad back and carpal tunnel) buying things they “want” and/or scoring extra OxyContin on the street; they offer their foodstamps too at 50 cents on the dollar, unless momma Sue can get to the store first.

    When these folks hear the words, in any combination, free and government and vouchers in the same sentence, they are the first in line. They’re not truly hungry – they are greedy and dysfunctional and those around them suffer regardless how much “assistance” you, me, or the government give them. Thankfully none of these folks come to our free kitchen, they claim they’re not that poor, but truth is it’s b/c they can’t resell and make a few bucks on the meals we provide.

    I’m not worried yet about a crisis or famine in the US. I believe in helping those who need a handup, not a lifetime of handouts and I expect a lot of folks are the latter.

  2. Tom Joad said on July 1st, 2008 at 4:00pm #

    Dayum Evie, where can I score some of them half priced food stamps?

  3. evie said on July 1st, 2008 at 5:21pm #

    You have to know the right people, Tom. Or maybe the wrong people.

  4. Hue Longer said on July 1st, 2008 at 8:16pm #

    evie, you’re engaging in what you think the article is as well.

    It could have been a biased sample were it not to include the following,

    “The number of families forced to rely on food stamp assistance has also shot up. In March, some 27.9 million Americans received food stamps — up 1.5 million, or 5.7 percent, from a year earlier. Nearly half of households receiving food stamp benefits have one or more working adults”.

    Your biased samples do not address this…why are the numbers of rebate check squanderers, hillbilly heroine junkies, and food stamp hustlers up 5.7 percent over last year?

    Regarding bootstraps…

    I’d much rather taxes went to subsidizing food to your real or imaginary friends whom you find so disgusting, than to paying military salaries, military medical, military housing and military rations. Good for your soup kitchen, but how many bowls did tax payers buy your military kids?

  5. evie said on July 1st, 2008 at 9:07pm #

    Assuming the 5.7 percent rise is legit how and who are they? Thank ClintonCo for “one or more working adult” b/c his welfare to work program has forced many into low paid deadend jobs but still eligible for food assistance.

    Are the numbers up b/c the hated BushCo programs have reached more who are eligible? There are more outreach programs now to sign up those eligible for assistance.

    Folks pulling their scams on uncle Sam – I’m amazed how many are doing it while feeling no guilt about taking from folks who are needy or would use it the way it was meant to be used. Abuse and fraud is shitty – whether coming from the top or the bottom.

    I see your disgust at subsidizing the troops – my oldest once said the military is just welfare with honor, although you would probably argue the honor part.

    Overweight and obesity in the US is the real “food crisis.”

  6. Hue Longer said on July 1st, 2008 at 10:00pm #


    it’s a one year increase…why are you muddying it with presidents? This author’s argument is at least supported. I think it’s weird that you are claiming high food and fuel prices have nothing to do with more people asking for assistance

    Your son is right and I don’t disagree with the honor part…I don’t honor him for it, but millions and millions of welfare hating US citz do

  7. evie said on July 1st, 2008 at 11:47pm #

    I don’t hate welfare, I’m surprised at such a knee-jerk response from you.

    According to the fns.usd the foodstamp rate has increased 2 percent per year every year since 2002 (before current gas and food prices). I didn’t see the 2007-2008 stats. The site also claims outreach programs since 2002 have reached more people, as I said, and that states have reduced the information the recipient has to report to maintain eligibility (which invites fraud). It also says more of the elderly on SS are receiving benefits, understandable as they live on fixed incomes.

    I will claim too many folks spend what they have on “wants” instead of needs, and expect the government to feed them. And a dependent population will never change the government that subsidizes their lives at poverty level.

    If folks were truly desperate in the US there would be revolution. Big Daddy guv and a “caring left” will make sure dumbed-down dysfunctional Joe Fat never gets that “desperate.”

  8. Tom Joad said on July 2nd, 2008 at 7:26am #

    Evie, every socio-economic strata has it’s hustlers. I’m a whole lot less concerned with those at the bottom than I am with those at the top, ie the friends of Bush/Cheney that score multi-billion dollar government contracts on the taxpayers dime for doing jack-shit.

  9. evie said on July 2nd, 2008 at 7:53am #

    Big money contracts for jackshit has always been the game in the US – we’re just more aware and it’s in our face now.

    When we the people imitate the corruption at the top – what’s the difference. It breeds the “I got mine” mentality, regardless the dollar amount, it has the same socially corrupting effect. We’ve become a nation of thieves and cheats.

    Maybe I’ve been around too long as I’ve seen a correlation between the growth of “social programs” and hustlers. The rich hustle programs to get richer and the rest hustle for nickles and dimes – and everyone justifies their own hustling.

  10. hp said on July 2nd, 2008 at 9:02am #

    “A society of cheaters and the cheated.”

  11. Hue Longer said on July 2nd, 2008 at 5:39pm #


    I can find a biased sample to prove most anything if the biased sample were accepted by those I were pitching it to. Using a biased sample to disprove should be easier to spot…You are implying that large increases to food prices are not causing a crisis for certain people because these certain people are the same as the cons and idiots from your examples.

    It’s a terrible effort and attempts to ignore simple math.

    Your sample aside, do you honestly believe there is no one out there playing it by evie’s rules who can no longer afford to put food on their table? Who were not already eating left overs and scraps? Do you sell this line to the people at your soup kitchen? What an F’n nightmare to be hungry and judged by the woman feeding you

  12. hp said on July 2nd, 2008 at 6:30pm #

    “What an F’n nightmare to be hungry and judged by the woman feeding you.”

    And just how the hell would you know anything about that, Hue?.

  13. Hue Longer said on July 2nd, 2008 at 6:57pm #

    what if I didn’t know anything about that? What if I did know something about that? Circumstantial ad hominem doesn’t prove anything, no matter how angry I made you, hp. (sorry for my personal tone, evie…it didn’t help)

  14. hp said on July 2nd, 2008 at 7:36pm #

    Incredulous is more like it, Hue.
    Pot. Kettle. Black.

  15. evie said on July 2nd, 2008 at 9:07pm #

    I, and my oldest daughter who is director of a nonprofit housing and job program for years, see the effects of policy and prices. We live in one of the poorest states in the union. We have not seen this horrendous new poverty or “food crisis” growing by leaps and bounds.

    And if crowds rushed the doors, “fights broke out” 34 squad cars on the scene, those were the “cons and idiots,” as you call them.

    Say what you will but the US still has a safety net that works 99% of the time for those that can access it, and improved outreach is reaching more people.

    This type of reporting is bulshit hype, “food riots” American style – as soon as a democrat is installed this sort of news disappears. God, how old are you Hue? 18?

  16. Hue Longer said on July 2nd, 2008 at 9:33pm #

    hp, that is not sound reasoning (no matter how many misguided bumper sticker poets use it) …do you need to hear the toaster call the kettle black before you’d believe it?

  17. Hue Longer said on July 2nd, 2008 at 9:52pm #


    prices have sky rocketed and people are hurting… your arguments don’t hold up…yet you keep making the same argument using the same fallacies.

    The news is doing a fine job of downplaying food prices and the problems they’re causing and I’m sure they’ll continue to try when a dem is in (although it’s growing pretty damn fast and the results of it will make it pretty tough to ignore).

    Your dem vs repub stuff is silly to use on me

    What if I were 18? See what I said to hp and if you still don’t get it, remember me the next time you drink from the well with an elder of yours who is full of baloney

  18. hp said on July 2nd, 2008 at 10:05pm #

    I was simply responding to your ad hominem remark to evie, Hue.
    I’m not interested in playing playground games with you.
    18? more like 12.