September 17, 2011; Source: Evansville Courier & Press | Recently, poverty numbers rose to their highest levels in decades. The headline numbers represent a nationwide aggregate and were bad enough. But at the local level, the “canaries in the coal mines” in terms of poverty are nonprofits that work with the poor. These groups can often observe increases in poverty via other indicators that may not be as scientific as the government figures, but which are no less devastating. 

For example, in Indiana, the Evansville Christian Life Center reported last week that it served more than 54,000 hot meals in its just-ended fiscal year 2011, an increase of more than 4,000 from the year before. Many of the recipients are newly unemployed; some are looking for hot meals after losing their jobs due to the closing of the local Whirlpool manufacturing plant. 

In 2009, Aurora Inc., a nonprofit that serves the homeless, reported that 400 people were typically in Evanston emergency shelters nightly and another 30 to 40 were living in cars, tents, and other outdoor locations around town. Aurora also said that the number of people in transitional housing numbers about 445, with another 50 to 60 living in various unsuitable dwellings. In addition, the state reported a 4-percent increase in food stamp issuance between July of 2010 and July 2011.

As these two Indiana groups have done, nonprofits can and should help local journalists make the new Census numbers on poverty as real, human, and local as possible. Soon, the Census Bureau will release its annual American Community Survey numbers, which features data on poverty at the local level. This will be another opportune time for nonprofits to raise awareness and organize policy advocacy to encourage policy makers to address the growing poverty in the “other America” that unfortunately seems to be escaping the notice of the deficit-reducing, budget-cutting legislators on Capitol Hill.—Rick Cohen