in Texas, in the face of inflation, “the American middle class is sinking into precariousness”

“Thank you for everything you do! You have such a big heart that you can’t imagine how much you help me!” Sitting behind the wheel of her truck, window down, Elena praises the Food Bank employee who just took her contact information. Behind the two women, a long line of cars stretches out in a parking lot in South Austin, the capital of Texas (United States). There are dozens of drivers, on this day at the end of October, waiting for the volunteers of this “drive” to load boxes full of preserves and vegetables in their trunk.

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“Surely we will have an uninterrupted flow of cars throughout the distribution”says Paul Gaither, communications manager for the Central Texas Food Bank, standing between two pallets of vegetables. Between April and September, the organization saw the number of requests for help increase by 11% compared to the previous six months. An increase that he attributes to inflation, which reached 8.2% per year in September in the United States, according to NBC*. A level not seen for 40 years.

The Food Bank distributes boxes of fresh and frozen products on October 25, 2022, in Austin (Texas, United States).  (MARIE-VIOLETTE BERNARD / FRANCEINFO)

In this context, it is not surprising that the economy has become the main concern of Americans before the midterm elections. (ADD PEDAGO LINK), according to a series of polls from the Gallup Institute*. For Republicans, the price hike is also an opportunity to attack Joe Biden’s record and try to regain control of Congress from Democrats on Tuesday, November 8.

In Texas, a state traditionally won over by conservatives, some voters are, however, less adamant about the politicians responsible for this economic crisis. “I wish our elected officials would work to make things better, but most of them don’t care what happens to people like me.”sweeps Luis, a 59-year-old cook who came to the cast. “We will continue to suffer regardless of the party in power”nods Russell, a 76-year-old retiree waiting a little longer in the parking lot.

Like the other Austinites interviewed by franceinfo, this former soldier is more worried about the state of his bank account than the upcoming election. “Many Texans face terrible decisions every day: pay their medical bills, their bills, or their food.”justifies Paul Gaither, from the Food Bank.

Austin resident Nicky during a food aid distribution from the Central Texas Food Bank (USA), Oct. 25, 2022. (MARIE-VIOLETTE BERNARD / FRANCEINFO)

This is the case of Nicky, who accompanies his sister to a cast for the first time. In recent months, the income of this employee of a supermarket chain has increased by “200 dollars”your bills from “100 dollars”. “Wages don’t move”the thirtysomething complains. “The money I save with this food aid will allow me to buy toilet paper or shampoo, or pay for gas to go to work.she rejoices. At the moment, we still manage to pay for everything, organizing ourselves well.”

Russell is not so lucky. Every time the line of cars stops, the retiree immediately turns off the engine. “My tank is almost dry and I only have $9 left in my pocket.he confesses, his eyes half hidden by a faded cap. The price of gasoline has gone up a lot, so I try to consume as little as possible.” His meager pension of $1,040 is used to cover his needs, as well as those of his nephew, his wife and their three children. “They lost their jobs during the pandemic and came to live with me. Even if my nephew finds a job, it is not enough to help me with the charges.”

“Every month we have to decide which bill to pay. I try to pay something to each company, so they don’t cut off any service. But I already have $600 in unpaid bills just for electricity.”

russell, retired

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“Anything that can help us close the month is positive”Russell continues. To limit expenses as much as possible, the septuagenarian goes twice a month to the distributions of the Food Bank. “We managed to last a week with a package, due to rationing”breathe. “In recent months, applicants have come in greater numbers, but also more frequently”endorses Sari Vatske, president of the Central Texas Food Bank.

“While some only came here occasionally, seeking emergency aid, there is a chronic dependency on food aid.”

Sari Vatske, President of the Central Texas Food Bank

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The beneficiaries of family allowances are “lack of income” at the beginning of the month, due in particular to the increase in prices, the head of the organization points out, observing the volunteers and employees busy in the cars. The Food Bank itself suffers from inflation.

An employee at the Central Texas Food Bank warehouse in Austin on Oct. 25, 2022. (MARIE-VIOLETTE BERNARD/FRANCEINFO)

“Fuel for our fleet of heavy trucks, which is used to transport food aid throughout central Texas, is more expensive. Loads from our headquarters have increased.”Sari Vatske lists, referring to the 12,500 m2 building that houses offices, a warehouse and a kitchen.We have also decided to increase the salaries of our employees to compensate for the loss of their power. purchase.”

At the far end of the parking lot, Elena’s truck’s engine coughs before producing an eerie screech. “Oh no! You have to hold on a little longer”, the driver pleads in a mix of English and Spanish, banging on the steering wheel. Before the pandemic, this mother of nine had never had to go to a food aid distribution. “My husband has a painting business and we were doing wellhe says without ever stopping smiling. But for the last two years, he has had very little work: people don’t have money to work at home.” The review in the garage will have to wait.

Elena, a stay-at-home mom, also came to pick up a food aid package in Austin on Oct. 25, 2022. (MARIE-VIOLETTE BERNARD/FRANCEINFO)

However, it’s hard to do anything without a vehicle in Austin. “Using public transport turns a 30-minute trip into a 2-hour trip”says Michael Tullius, head of the charity program for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Austin, a Catholic charity. “When they are in financial difficulties, many prefer to sleep in their car before paying the rent”the 1940s continue, sitting in a small messy office in the north of the city.

“Without a car it is impossible to go to work, get a second job to make ends meet, take the children to school or to the doctor.”

Michael Tullius, head of the charitable program of the Society of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul

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In 2021, Austin had more than 3,000 homeless people, estimates local organization Echo*. A phenomenon that Michael Tullius relates in part to the rise in real estate prices in the Texas capital, which has become “one of the least affordable cities” of the United States, according to New York Times*. The Society of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul offers financial assistance to tenants in difficulty, “within the limit of twice a year, due to our small budget”. “We see residents whose landlord increases the rent from $300 to $600 when the lease is reneweddenounces Michael Tullius. Not being able to pay as much, the most vulnerable end up on the streets or have to leave Austin.”

If inflation has disastrous consequences for the most precarious, everyone feels the effects”says Martha. This bank employee admits to being in a comfortable situation, “no obligation to deprive yourself of the price increase”. Regardless, she rummages through the aisles of the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul thrift store, looking for “for a bargain”. “We try to be vigilant. My son was laid off twice during the pandemic, he came back to live with us”she testifies.

“She’s working again, but she’s earning less than before and has debts to pay. With rents going up, she can’t afford to move.”

austin resident marten

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“The face of precariousness has changed”, confirms Sari Vatske. About 93% of families helped by the Central Texas Food Bank have a permanent home and two-thirds have at least one working adult. However, 60% of these households need the NGO’s distributions to survive. “We see people arriving in beautiful cars, embarrassed to ask for help to eat their fill”Michael Tullius abounds.

Four years ago, the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Society helped just over 80 households during its weekly food distribution. There are already 800 families who come to the doors of the organization every Saturday. And the association’s thrift store, which offers ridiculously low-priced furniture and clothing, is always packed.

Customers at the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Society thrift store in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 27, 2022. (MARIE-VIOLETTE BERNARD / FRANCEINFO)

“The minimum hourly wage in Texas is $7.25. For many, that means decent living conditions are impossible.” relieves Michael Tullius. Without measures to help them, “The American middle class is slowly sinking into precariousness”judge the head of the association. “Public and private actors, political leaders… We must all work together to find lasting solutions to food insecurity, also alleges Sari Vatske. And it is imperative that the voice of the poorest be heard.” For this, there is only one possible solution, argues Michael Tullius: “Go vote on Tuesday, November 8.”

* Links marked with asterisks refer to content in English.

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