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Dried up: Poverty in America's drought lands

Published: Sunday, June 15 2014 7:40 a.m. MDT

As our nation faces a devastating drought, the poor are hit the hardest.

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In more than two decades working at a Central California food bank, Sandy Beals has never seen anything like this spring.

Last month alone, FoodLink of Tulare County served 22,000 people who came in for food — 5,000 more than it usually serves each month and a 12 percent increase from the same month last year. For Beals, who runs the food bank, the spike in hunger traces back to one thing: drought.

“We didn’t think we would hit a big peak until August, but it’s already started to climb,” Beals says. "And it’s going to get a lot worse" as the end of the crop season normally drives more migrant workers to FoodLink's services.

Tulare County is just one of the hundreds of counties across the country experiencing drought, including every county in California, according to ratings by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Conditions are such that Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January.

The drought situation is driving up prices nationwide for produce grown in the Golden State's Central Valley and other agricultural areas stricken by drought, such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. And among rising food costs, access to clean water and growing unemployment, the drought’s hardest-hit victims are the country’s poor.

"We like to say we live in the greatest country in the world," says Melinda Laituri, a geography professor at Colorado State University who specializes in disaster management. "But in many ways, we manifest all the very worst things. (Drought) impacts the everyday life of everyone. But it has more impact on those who have fewer options and fewer choices to make."

Water poverty

Unlike tornadoes or hurricanes, relative to other natural disasters, drought often goes unnoticed, says historian Elke Weesjes, a disaster researcher at the University of Colorado. And dried-up land has especially devastating effects for those already facing the challenges of poverty.

“Drought doesn’t photograph well because the impact is very much hidden,” Weesjes says. “It’s translated into economic losses and whole communities are affected by drought."

Laituri agrees.

"Sometimes it's easier to deal with too much of something — like a flood or a big storm that comes in. It's something we can respond to rapidly because it's an event," she says. "It's only after several years that we realize we are in a drought."

In Tulare County, 29.7 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line — making it the most impoverished county in the state and among the highest poverty rates in the nation. The drought has hit Tulare County's poor particularly hard, especially families like 80-year-old Carmen and Al Almanza. The retired couple were surprised in early April when water simply stopped coming out of their faucet.

They rely on their son, who brings a trash can filled with water to their home three times a week, and grandchildren, who bring them bottled water for drinking.

Local water authorities told the Almanzas their well was dry and they needed to dig about 150 feet deeper — which could cost anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000. The couple, living only on Social Security, say they can’t afford that kind of renovation.

“I just need my well fixed,” Carmen Almanza says. “You can imagine it’s difficult to open the faucet and expect to have plenty of water, and now we don’t.”

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