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Progressive Voice: Recognizing Arlington’s Invisible Hungry

Max BurnsProgressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Max Burns

(Updated at 11:35 p.m.) When you think of an Arlingtonian on food assistance, what image comes to mind? The stereotypes are ready-made: the single mother trying to stretch a dozen eggs across two weeks. The low-income minority without sound employment options. The homeless.

We make assumptions about these individuals every day because their circumstances prevent them from engaging in civic life. We don’t see them at political meetings or bar crawling with the khaki crowd in Clarendon. They exist separate from us, if they exist to us at all.

But those stereotypes aren’t supported by the data. I reached out to Arlington County for demographic information on residents below the poverty line and received an instructive but dusty 2011 survey on poverty in Arlington County published by the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development. As sparse and dated as the research may be, what it shows shatters our preconceptions.

Nearly 40% of residents living below the poverty line are 18-34 — by far the largest subset of Arlingtonians. Their faces look like mine. They are “Millennials,” that much-maligned term. They came to Arlington to work, and many are gainfully employed. They don’t live lavishly. Many have multiple roommates. They aren’t bar crawlers.

Even with jobs and housing, their income just isn’t enough to handle the rising cost of living in Arlington County – north or south. That’s a systemic problem.

These young people came to Arlington to pursue their careers because of our promise as a community, but more and more end up at the door of the Arlington Food Assistance Center, which provides food support to community members in need. Now, those who help need help in turn.

An AFAC staffer told me it used to be easy to tell who visited AFAC to volunteer and who turned up for food assistance. That isn’t the case anymore. With demand for food assistance rising countywide, especially among the newest generation of residents, it’s imperative we take two immediate steps to address what is both a pressing public health crisis and a moral one.

First, Arlington County must get serious about producing updated statistics on poverty and hunger in our community. AFAC took the first step with a 2012-2013 Food Insecurity Survey that showed over 7% of Arlington suffers from chronic food insecurity. This requires those who have the means to make their voices heard on behalf of those who do not.

Second, and most immediate, we need to re-engage as a community with AFAC and organizations that support these marginalized groups. That means giving our time, expertise and, yes, contributions. It’s a logistical challenge to distribute 4.3 million pounds of food a year. Your hands and checkbooks make a direct, meaningful impact. This is what community really means.

I’ve met countless Democrats, Republicans and politically unaffiliated people who give their time and money to help alleviate the suffering of their fellow Arlingtonians. But they can’t do it alone. If Arlington is to remain a magnet for new residents, if we are going to reduce the need for other, more expensive social services for those in poverty, the County Board must make addressing food insecurity a priority.

We must find a way as a community to engage with those we don’t see. It’s time to put our values – progressive or otherwise – to the test for those we call neighbors and friends.

Max Burns is a member of the 8th Congressional District Democratic Committee and former President of the Arlington Young Democrats.

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