Island Families Need Help to Stay Afloat

Island Families Need Help to Stay Afloat

I am occasionally asked how more than 2,000 families in Alameda can come up short on grocery money when the economy is booming for those who are working and the government safety net helps those who are not. Do they lack ambition? Are they unwilling to work? Are they content to depend on the kindness of strangers?

In fact, many of our clients are elderly people getting along — just barely — on Social Security and retirement funds. Others are disabled and cannot work full time or at all. We also help college students trying to juggle work and school, often skipping meals to stretch their meager funds.

A significant number of our clients are between jobs or getting back on their feet after an injury or illness. They simply need our help until they can become self-sufficient once again.

But most of our families have one or more members working full time in low-paying jobs. They make too much money to qualify for government benefits, but not enough to cover all their expenses. Rent, in particular, can take half or more of their income — even before they buy clothes for the kids, put gas in the car and pay medical bills. They often come up short while trying to fill up a grocery cart with food for their family. 

The Bay Area is an expensive place to live. A family of four with two adults working full-time at minimum wage earns just over $62,000; that’s about 60 percent of what the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development considers low income in Alameda County.

To make matters worse, the Bay Area leads California (and all but four other states and the District of Columbia) in income inequality. Top income earners in the Bay Area earn on average more than 12 times as much as those at the bottom of the economic ladder, according to new research from the Public Policy Institute of California. 

This study shows us what we can easily see with our own eyes: the benefits of California’s strong economy have not been evenly distributed. Incomes for the highest-earning families have increased three times as much as those of families in the bottom 10 percent over the last four decades.

Government programs do not help everyone who needs it. In fact, the federal government of late has been intent on limiting the reach of many programs designed to help people at the lower end of the economic scale with food and housing. 

Meanwhile, low-income families need help to remain on the Island where many of them work while their children go to Alameda schools. They are not asking for a hand-out, just a leg up.

Alameda has shown time and again that it takes care of its own. Where the government safety net is frayed, Islanders step up to support the array of nonprofits like the Alameda Food Bank that fill in the gaps. Helping our fellow Islanders keeps Alameda economically strong and diverse, open to all who are willing to contribute to its special nature. 


Cindy Houts is the executive director of Alameda Food Bank.