Middle East and North Africa feeling effects of War in Ukraine as prices soar for basic items

Rev 6:6 NAS And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine.”

Important Takeaways:

  • War in Ukraine pushes Middle East and North Africa deeper into hunger as food prices reach alarming highs
  • As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins, the soaring cost of food staples in import-dependent Middle Eastern and North African countries is creating ever greater challenges for millions of families already struggling to keep hunger at bay, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) said today.
  • The prices of wheat flour and vegetable oil – two key staples in the diet of most families – have consequently risen across the region. Cooking oil is up 36 percent in Yemen and 39 percent in Syria. Wheat flour is up 47 percent in Lebanon, 15 percent in Libya and 14 percent in Palestine.
  • The cost of a basic food basket – the minimum food needs per family per month – registered an annual increase of 351 percent in Lebanon, the highest in the region. It was followed by Syria, with a 97 percent rise, and Yemen with 81 percent hike

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World economic pressure has nations considering rationing fuel, food vouchers

Rev 6:6 NAS And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine.”

Important Takeaways:

  • Gas rationing, food vouchers and hunger: Economic pain from Russia’s war is getting real
  • Forecasts for global growth are being slashed and the chance of a US recession in 2023 has risen to 35%, according to Goldman Sachs.
  • Sanctions and other supply-chain disruptions have sent consumer prices surging across the world as oil and other commodity prices have spiked. Soaring gas and diesel prices are also adding to the cost of food, heightening fears that the world is on the brink of a hunger crisis.
  • France’s government is considering food vouchers to help residents afford to eat.
  • Desperation in Ukraine:
    • Millions of refugees are pouring out of Ukraine and little ability to pay for their needs. Inside Ukraine, some towns have less than a four days’ worth of food, the aid agency Mercy Corps said Tuesday, warning that the humanitarian system in the country “is entirely broken down.”
  • The CEO of Dutch commodity trading company Vitol said this week pulling Russian oil off the Western market will force drivers and truckers to ration diesel fuel.
  • Meanwhile, the UK government is cutting taxes to help keep fuel affordable.

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As conflict stalks Burkina Faso borderlands, hunger spreads

By Anne Mimault

DORI, Burkina Faso (Reuters) – Suspended from scales in a bucket, nine-month-old Sakinatou Amadou gripped the sides of her makeshift container as a nurse at a small clinic in northern Burkina Faso checked on her recovery from malnutrition.

Sakinatou’s mother is dead and she is being raised in Dori, a trading hub near the Niger border, by her grandmother, whose family of 14 have struggled to support themselves since they fled their village in 2019.

They are among more than 2 million people across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger who have been forced from their homes by a wave of attacks on rural communities by Islamist groups.

With crop yields further compromised by erratic rainfall, some 5.5 million in the three countries on the edge of the Sahara are facing food shortages, a figure the U.N. estimates could rise to 8.2 million by August, when food is most scarce before the harvest.

“People have lost animals, fields and sometimes crops. They have lost everything,” said doctor Alphonse Gnoumou, who runs the health center in Dori that has helped Sakinatou to gain weight.

The town’s once bustling livestock market has shut down due to the violence. Transporting food in the area is dangerous and prices have skyrocketed, said Kadidiatou Ba, who sells vegetables and dried goods from a roadside shack.

“Everything has gone up. We used to pay 40,000 CFA francs ($68) for a sack of beans, now we’re at 75,000,” she said as she waited for customers.

Meanwhile Dori’s population has nearly tripled in two years to 71,000 and the influx of displaced people threatens to overwhelm meagre local services.

Three or four children cram behind each desk at a local school, which aims to feed each pupil a bowl of rice and beans so they can have at least one square meal per day.

“These were very traumatized kids. When they first came with their parents, we saw an indescribable sadness in them,” said head teacher Bokum Abdalaye, as children played in the schoolyard behind him.

“When they see they have a midday meal that they can share with the others, that helps them settle in.”

($1 = 584.3400 CFA francs)

(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Edward McAllister and John Stonestreet)

Lessons of hunger: pandemic prompts fresh thinking, new players in U.S. food aid

By Christopher Walljasper and Donna Bryson

CHICAGO (Reuters) – On a recent morning in Chicago’s Southwest side, young workers hefted boxes of food into vans for delivery. Borders staked out by rival gangs prevented many hungry people from visiting the New Life Centers’ food distribution site. So workers brought the food to them.

A year ago, food had a small role at New Life Centers, a church and community outreach program that works to defuse gang tensions. Since June 2020 however, the organization has partnered with local food banks and donors to provide food to around 6,000 families each week. It will continue the stepped-up effort even when the pandemic is over, finding that food delivery opens doors for conflict-resolution workers.

“That’s how relationships get built,” said Paulino Vargas, New Life Centers’ street outreach program manager.

The United States, the world’s richest country, had pockets of hunger before the pandemic put millions of people out of work last year. But now the problem has intensified in urban and rural areas where residents do not have consistent access to nutritious food. Demand at Feeding America, a national network of food banks, rose by 60% during the pandemic.

Even as the U.S. economy recovers with government stimulus and falling COVID-19 cases, hunger worsens. The Congressional Budget Office in February predicted the number of Americans using food stamps to buy food would peak at 44 million in 2022, up from 36.8 million pre-pandemic, before starting to decrease in 2023.

In the past, food security was mainly the concern of food banks and food pantries, but now all kinds of community organizations and other groups are getting involved – from anti-violence workers in Chicago to New York City probation officers. Meanwhile, food pantries nationwide have changed in ways that will continue post-pandemic.

Working with partners such as the Food Bank for New York City, the New York probation department has in recent months increased from once to three times a week the number of days the Nutrition Kitchen food pantries it runs are open and plans to continue the longer hours after the pandemic. The department sees the food pantries as a way to address recidivism as well as to help the wider community.

“People can’t get back on their feet if they’re hungry,” said Steve Cacace, who as director of the probation department’s Community Resource Unit leads the pantry project.

The department also will keep turning to people on parole to help out at the pantries. In some cases, as when Eric Burks started packing boxes of food and tracking the numbers of people served at a Nutrition Kitchen in his home borough of Queens, it can help people complete community-service hours.

“I finished my community service, I started coming back every day,” Burks said. After a day in which he might help serve more than 200 people at the pantry, he uses a shopping cart to deliver food to neighbors who are unable to make the trip to the Nutrition Kitchen.

In Chicago, New Life Centers’ executive director, Matt DeMateo, has seen an opportunity for young people to be empowered “as givers.”

When her college transitioned to online learning during the pandemic, Diana Franco, 20, dropped out and poured more time into volunteering at New Life Centers. With government grants and private donations, the center hired 15 new employees to manage food aid, including Franco as food distribution coordinator.

‘A PAYCHECK AWAY’

It is not just in big cities that people have risen to the challenge of hunger in a pandemic.

Schoolteacher Courtney Walker helps run a food pantry with her family in Atwood, a village of about 1,000 in southern Illinois. Walker said her pantry at Atwood First Baptist, working with partners such as the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, served about 60 families a month before the pandemic and more than 100 by last summer.

Her husband Tim, a mechanic, said Atwood families regularly drive 40 miles (64 km) to stock up at a full-service grocery store on items they cannot obtain at their local Dollar General store. People on fixed incomes in Atwood cannot always afford the gasoline. The pandemic recession, Tim Walker said, revealed how many were “a paycheck away from not being able to afford three meals a day.”

The Walkers started pre-packing boxes of food to limit contacts that could have spread the coronavirus. They are eager to return to allowing people to browse the pantry shelves as if they were in a grocery store, which they say is more dignified.

But in Wisconsin, the Walworth County Food Pantry said it will continue contactless delivery. Giving pre-packed boxes of food to cars is more hygienic and efficient and requires fewer volunteers than having people crowd in to indoor facilities, employees said.

In Denver, the organization that runs one of the city’s largest pantries is calling for more direct cash payments from the federal government to allow people to shop for themselves in stores, moving away from a model that largely relies on food that might otherwise go to waste being distributed to the needy by food pantries.

“We’d like to cut ourselves out of the equation,” said Teva Sienicki, CEO of the Denver pantry organization Metro Caring.

The Biden administration’s stimulus plan includes payments of $1,400 for eligible Americans as well as periodic payments in the second half of the year in the form of an expanded child tax credit.

Sienicki said putting “cash in people’s pockets” allows them to buy items like diapers or toothpaste that are not covered by food stamps.

Pantries such as Metro Caring’s can support people after an emergency, Sienicki said. But she questioned how efficiently, effectively and fairly they can serve large numbers of people who could take years to recover from the pandemic recession.

(Reporting by Christopher Walljasper in Chicago and Donna Bryson in Denver; Writing by Donna Bryson; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Matthew Lewis)

Yemenis reel from poverty, hunger as U.N. pleads for funds and war’s end

SANAA (Reuters) – Unable to find work, Ahmed Farea has sold everything including his wife’s gold to feed and house two young daughters in one small room.

Elsewhere in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, widow Mona Muhammad has work but struggles to buy anything more nutritious than rice for her four children amid high prices.

And in a nearby hospital, severely malnourished children receive lifesaving nutritional drinks.

Across the country Yemenis are exhausting their coping mechanisms, and children are starving, amid the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

On Monday the United Nations hopes to raise $3.85 billion at a virtual pledging event to avert what the U.N. aid chief has said would be a large-scale “man-made” famine, the worst the world will have seen for decades.

“I want the war to stop so we can go back to how we were … We could buy what we wanted and could feed our children,” said Muhammad.

Yemen was a poor country with a child malnutrition problem even before the six-year war disrupted imports, inflated the currency, displaced people, collapsed government services and destroyed incomes. Then COVID-19 hammered remittances from abroad that many families relied on.

‘UNIMAGINABLY CRUEL’

“Since the war and the blockade started, and work stopped, I can’t buy anything anymore. Where am I supposed to get it from?” said Farea, who wheels his barrow daily to collect water in cans from a neighborhood tank provided for poor people.

“I sleep all morning and then have lunch at noon from whatever God supplies and that covers the rest of the day.”

His work in construction declined in the wake of the political upheaval caused by Yemen’s 2011 uprising, he said. He then sold fruit but rising prices after war broke out in late 2014 made this unprofitable.

As needs have risen in the past year, funding of the aid response has dropped, leading the U.N. and other aid agencies to scale down or close various assistance programs.

Famine has never been officially declared in Yemen but pockets of famine-like conditions have appeared for the first time in two years, the U.N. has said.

In 2018 and 2019, the U.N. prevented famine due to a well-funded aid appeal. But in 2020 the world body only received just over half the $3.4 billion it needed.

“What is happening to the people of Yemen is unimaginably cruel. Aid groups are catastrophically underfunded and overstretched. The parties to this senseless war specialize in producing suffering and the weapon of choice is hunger,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, on a visit to Yemen.

There has been a recent renewed push by the U.N. and the United States for a negotiated end to the war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. New U.S. President Joe Biden has said Yemen is a priority, declaring a halt to U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign.

(Reporting by Reuters Yemen team,; Writing by Lisa Barrington; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Guatemalan families mourn death of children as hunger spreads

By Sofia Menchu

LA PALMILLA, Guatemala (Reuters) – Two-year-old Yesmin Anayeli Perez died this week of illnesses linked to malnutrition, the third small child to die from similar causes in an impoverished mountain village in eastern Guatemala within weeks, residents and health officials said.

Residents of the indigenous Mayan village, La Palmilla, and other parts of a region known as the Dry Corridor sunk deeper into poverty last year when economic damage wrought by droughts and two devastating hurricanes was compounded by the coronavirus lockdown.

The second of three children, Yesmin had a history of acute malnutrition, which causes rapid weight-loss and wasting, and for which she was hospitalized several times over the past year.

In the months before her death, Yesmin’s legs and arms were stick-like and her belly swollen by water retention, even though she had gained a little weight. Reuters visited her family in their home in October, where Yesmin, dressed in a purple t-shirt, was being fed a high protein mash by her mother.

In the early hours of Monday, Yesmin died, her eyes bulging and her frail body distorted by a persistent cough and long struggle with lung illness linked to her inadequate nutrition, her father Ignoja Perez told Reuters.

Just over half the normal weight for her age, she was suffering malnutrition and pneumonia made worse by the cold and damp weather that followed the hurricanes, local health official Santiago Esquivel said.

Sitting in front of her small coffin, in a home with a dirt floor and tin roof, her father said the family had been hopeful she would make a recovery.

“I bought her some vitamins on Sunday, to see if she would put on weight, we were going to start the treatment on Monday, with a spoonful,” Perez recalled. “But she got worse.”

Yesmin was buried on a hilltop along with some of her clothes, a bottle of water and a small, orange plastic drinking cup in a traditional ceremony on Tuesday.

The family had celebrated her second birthday with a bowl of chicken soup just a few weeks earlier.

The Guatemalan government denies that Yesmin was suffering malnutrition at the time of her death, or at any time during 2020. However, medical records reviewed by Reuters showed she was diagnosed as suffering from acute malnutrition at least until March.

Guatemala’s Food and Nutritional Security Secretariat said in a statement that Yesmin and her family had received support from authorities, in recognition that she had suffered malnutrition and lung problems at birth.

Asked why she was not classified as malnourished in 2020, the agency referred Reuters to the Health Ministry. The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

TRAPPED BY POVERTY

Government data show acute malnutrition among the under-fives rose by 80% in Guatemala in 2020 compared to 2019.

The government said the jump was partly due to improved methodology. However, data gathered by Oxfam last year also showed large increases in families facing food shortages, including a four-fold jump in severe shortages in the province around La Palmilla.

At least 46 children under five died of hunger-related causes in 2020 in Guatemala, according to the government data, well below previous years. Ivan Aguilar, a humanitarian program coordinator based in Guatemala at Oxfam, said the drop appeared to be due to officials attributing deaths related to malnutrition to other causes, including the case of Yesmin.

Yesmin was the third young child to die in the village of around 3,000 people since October, local health official Esquivel said. Yesmin was buried a few feet away from another girl who died on Dec. 26.

The deaths are unusual even in a region that grew tragically accustomed to such deaths after drought destroyed crops every year for half of the past decade, Esquivel added.

“Sometimes a child would die, but not like this, one after the other,” he said.

The crisis is driving a new round of migration north.  But in La Palmilla and other villages in the eastern highlands, people said they lack the money to up and leave.

Without work for months during a lockdown from February, Perez borrowed money and sold his coffee crop, spending the little he raised to pay for Yesmin’s treatment in nearby city Zacapa.

The two hurricanes in November wiped out his field of beans, leaving only corn in the ground, and the walls of his mud-block house cracked with the rain, letting the winter chill inside.

“I wish I could go to the United States, but without money, we have to stay,” he said, looking down at his daughter’s still body.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Stefanine Eschenbacher; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O’Brien)

Americans give to charity like never before amid pandemic

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – Hundreds of cars line up before dawn on weekly distribution days for the Forgotten Harvest’s partner food pantries in the metro Detroit area, where visits are up by 50% this year.

The need has grown as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down offices and other businesses. So has the response.

Monetary donations to the food bank are on pace to top last year’s contributions, helping to fund a larger storage space and new mobile distribution sites required to distribute food safely during the crisis.

“The only good thing about this pandemic is that it’s made people care a little bit more about their neighbors,” said Christopher Ivey, director of marketing for Forgotten Harvest, one of the largest food banks in Michigan.

The economic crisis set off by the pandemic has widened the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in the United States in new ways. People who can work from home, often in higher-income jobs, are comfortable.

But over 20 million Americans rely on unemployment benefits, and hunger and poverty are rising.

The expanded rift has been accompanied by an outpouring of donations to local food banks, crowdfunding campaigns and other aid to financially devastated Americans.

Amazon shareholder Mackenzie Scott’s $4 billion in charitable contributions, announced earlier this month, may be the biggest. But plenty of Americans are also chipping in, donating $10 or $20, some for the first time ever.

Many non-profits have suffered this year as the pandemic shuttered galas and fundraisers. But donations to some small and mid-sized charitable organizations were up 7.6% in the first nine months of 2020 over 2019, according to a recent analysis by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, which tracks nearly 2,500 groups. The number of donors is up by 11.7%.

The trend seems to have continued in December, typically the most active time for charitable giving in the United States, early data show. Charities received $2.47 billion in donations on Dec. 1, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving known as GivingTuesday, up 25% from 2019.

“People are giving like we’ve never seen before,” said Woodrow Rosenbaum, chief data officer for GivingTuesday.

Much of that is coming in small dollar amounts, suggesting that people across the income spectrum are stepping up their contributions, Rosenbaum said.

About 70% of the donations made to campaigns on GoFundMe were under $50 this year, up from 40% in 2019, according to a spokesperson for the fundraising website.

“What we have now is much more collective action,” said Rosenbaum.

America’s Food Fund, started this year, raised over $44 million on GoFundMe, the largest campaign ever on the fundraising website. Long-time programs like the United States Post Office’s Operation Santa, which matches donors with needy families who send letters to a special North Pole address, report unprecedented support.

Jonathan Cummings, executive director for Revive South Jersey, a ministry started in 2012 to tutor English, mentor and provide housing help in local communities, says a “groundswell” of volunteers signed up to deliver food every two weeks after the organization realized that many of the families it supports were struggling to afford groceries.

Giving Tuesday donations tracked by Share Omaha, a Nebraska organization that supports local nonprofits, nearly doubled this year from 2019, to over $3 million, with a third coming from first-time donors. When the group asked for volunteers earlier in the year for packing meals for the homeless and other tasks, it got 700 applications, up from the 200 monthly average.

“Even if people are out of work or furloughed, they want to give back to the community,” said Marjorie Maas, executive director for the organization.

Janette McCabe was one of the hundreds of people waiting in cars before sunrise on the Monday before Christmas in a parking lot in Warren, Michigan, for a Forgotten Harvest food bank distribution.

McCabe and her husband lost their jobs recently and have been relying on food stamps. She has been coming to the food bank distribution for about a month and a half.

“The volunteers are fantastic,” McCabe said. “I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have them.”

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Additional reporting by Emily Elconin; Editing by Heather Timmons and Dan Grebler)

Freed Nigerian schoolboys return home, tell of beatings and hunger

By Afolabi Sotunde

KATSINA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Scores of schoolboys who were rescued from kidnappers in northwest Nigeria arrived back home on Friday, many of them barefoot and wrapped in blankets after their week-long ordeal.

The boys, dressed in dusty clothes, looked dazed and weary but otherwise well as they got off buses in the city of Katsina and walked to a government building.

One, who did not give his name, said the captors had told him to describe them as members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, although he suspected they were armed bandits.

“They beat us morning, every night. We suffered a lot. They only gave us food once a day and water twice a day,” he told Nigeria’s Arise television.

A week earlier, gunmen on motorbikes raided the boys’ boarding school in the town of Kankara in Katsina state and marched hundreds of them into a vast forest that spans four states.

Security services rescued them on Thursday, authorities said. However, many details surrounding the incident remain unclear, including who was responsible, whether a ransom was paid, how the boys’ release was secured and whether all of them are now safe.

The abduction gripped a country already incensed by widespread insecurity, and evoked memories of Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok.

Six years on, only about half the girls have been found or freed. Some were married off to fighters, while others are assumed to be dead.

Any Boko Haram involvement in this kidnapping would mark a geographical expansion in its activities from its base in the northeast. The region is also plagued by armed gangs that rob and kidnap for ransom.

Hours before the rescue of the boys was announced on Thursday, a video started circulating online purportedly showing Boko Haram militants with some of the boys. Reuters was unable to verify the authenticity of the footage or who released it.

The boy interviewed by Arise TV was one of those who spoke in the video.

“They said I should say they are Boko Haram and gangs of Abu Shekau,” he said, referring to a name used by a Boko Haram leader. “Sincerely speaking, they are not Boko Haram … They are just small and tiny, tiny boys with big guns.”

Another of the boys told Reuters that the kidnappers had initially taken them to a hiding place.

“But when they saw a jet fighter, they changed the location and hid us in a different place. They gave us food, but it was very little,” he said.

TEARS OF JOY, PRAYERS OF THANKS

On Friday, the boys from the Government Science Secondary School walked from the buses in single file, flanked by soldiers and armed police officers, and were taken to the government building to meet the governor.

“We are very grateful. We are very grateful. We are very grateful,” a man who said he was the father of two of the pupils told Arise TV.

The boys were later brought back to the buses and driven off for medical checks, officials said.

A group of parents waited to be reunited with them in a shaded parking lot in another part of town.

Hajiya Bilikisu, in a cream-colored veil, said she had started to lose hope that she would ever see her son, Abdullahi Abdulrazak, again.

“I was just crying, crying with joy, when I saw them, my son” in pictures after the release, she told Reuters.

“They have to recovery psychologically,” she said. “They went through trauma. We have to try to counsel them, so they can now become normal persons.”

Hafsat Funtua, mother of 16-year-old Hamza Naziru, said she ran out of her house with joy “not knowing where to go” when she heard the news.

“I couldn’t believe what I heard until neighbors came to inform me that it’s true,” she said in a phone interview. She later returned home to pray.

The mass kidnapping piled pressure on the government to deal with militants in the north of the country.

It was particularly embarrassing for President Muhammadu Buhari, who comes from Katsina state and has repeatedly said that Boko Haram has been “technically defeated”.

Buhari said he had congratulated the state’s governor and the army, in a brief clip from an interview posted on his Twitter account earlier on Friday.

Information Minister Lai Mohammed told journalists on Friday the abduction was “totally unacceptable”.

“Our children should not have to go to school in trepidation. The federal government is doing everything possible to secure all our schools, and indeed all Nigerians,” he said at a press conference in the capital, Abuja.

(Reporting by Ismail Abba in Katsina; Additional reporting by Maiduguri newsroom, Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi, Garba Muhammad in Kaduna, Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah in Abuja, and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram and Andrew Heavens; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Mike Collett-White)

Trump or Biden’s big economic challenge: millions of struggling Americans

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – The winner of the race for the White House will face a generation of low-to-middle income Americans struggling to get back to work because of a health crisis not seen in more than 100 years.

Whether it’s President Donald Trump or Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden, the reality is grim: about half of the 22 million who lost their jobs during the pandemic are still out of work.

New hiring is slowing, dimming prospects for the low-wage workers hit hardest by job losses. Infections of the virus that killed more than 225,000 Americans are rising to new records. Hotels, transportation companies and food providers warn that more layoffs are coming, and the government aid that helped many pay the bills is long gone.

Securing a future for a vast, growing underclass “is the most important challenge America faces over the next few years, 10 years, 20 years,” said Gene Ludwig, a former comptroller of the currency under President Bill Clinton and author of “The Vanishing American Dream,” a book about the economic challenges facing lower and middle income Americans.

“We cannot sustain a democratic society that has these kinds of numbers of low and middle income people that aren’t able to have a hope for the American dream and live decently.”

Congressional Democrats and the Trump administration have been trying to negotiate a $2 trillion coronavirus aid bill, but many Senate Republicans object to the cost and question whether more stimulus is needed. A deal may not be reached until early 2021.

SAVINGS DRY UP

That’s going to be too late for some.

Direct cash payments and enhanced unemployment benefits established by the CARES Act, which added $600 a week to state unemployment benefits, lifted more Americans out of poverty in April even as unemployment soared, according to research by the Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University.

People receiving the enhanced benefits were able to spend more, build savings and pay off debt, according to an analysis by the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

But after the benefits expired at the end of July, poverty is once again on the rise – with the monthly poverty rate reaching 16.7% in September from 15% in February, according to the Columbia study. After a decade of decline, hunger is rising nationwide.

Lisandra Bonilla, 46, saved roughly a third of the enhanced unemployment benefits she received after she was furloughed in late March from her job at an employment agency in Kissimmee, Florida. “I had saved a lot because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said.

It was smart planning: in August her benefits were cut to $275 a week before taxes, the maximum in Florida, down from more than $800.

Bonilla returned to work part-time in late September, but now she is struggling to pay the bills on half her previous pay, and fears her savings will be gone by December.

If she isn’t hired full time soon, she needs to find another job.

“We’re trying to shovel ourselves out of the hole, but at the same time the hole is getting bigger,” said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Two factors are particularly worrying, she said. More than 420,000 small businesses shuttered between March and mid-summer, which is more than three times the typical pace, she estimates. And permanent layoffs are also on the rise, hitting 3.8 million in September from 1.3 million in February – similar to levels seen before the 2008 election.

THE LONGTERM UNEMPLOYMENT TRAP

Bishop Donald Harper has been on more than 50 job interviews since he was furloughed in March.

Harper, 55, a veteran chef, most recently oversaw five restaurants at an Orlando resort. But with occupancy still low, it’s not clear when he’ll get back to work.

Applications for jobs at super markets or in health care have also been fruitless.

“I can do anything and everything,” said Harper, who also serves as a bishop for a nondenominational church. He is struggling to pay for food and utilities on $275-a-week unemployment, and three months behind on his $1,900 a month rent.

“I don’t want to be homeless,” said Harper, who lives with two children ages 10 and 13. He has reached out to more than 20 groups seeking rental assistance, with no luck.

The United States has 2.4 million and growing “long-term” unemployed, officially defined as those who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Getting everyone back to work is crucial, but economists say these job seekers are at greater risk of dropping out of the labor market or taking lower paying jobs.

This week, the U.S. Commerce Department is expected to report that Gross Domestic Product surged in the third quarter, thanks in part to fiscal stimulus that kept U.S. workers afloat, but has mostly expired.

Now, people who are out of work or in low-wage jobs need rental support, direct cash payments and food assistance, as well as federal jobs projects and retraining programs, labor economists say.

If elected, Biden has pledged to raise the federal minimum wage, and roll out trillions of dollars in infrastructure and green energy programs. But he’ll need the votes in Congress to do it.

Trump has signaled support for more federal stimulus, but has offered fewer specifics on jobs.

Until help arrives, workers are struggling.

Rachel Alvarez, 44, a single mother of three in Naples, Florida, starts a new job this week as a server at a restaurant – her first time working since she lost her job in March.

Restaurant workers who depend on tips aren’t making much money, because business remains slow due to the coronavirus, she said. She hasn’t paid rent since June, and is still waiting to hear from the county government about a grant.

“I’m going to keep my head up, because if shit like this ever happens to my children I want them to keep their head up too,” said Alvarez.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte. Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Richard Cowan; Editing by Heather Timmons and Edward Tobin)

In Argentina’s north, indigenous children sicken and die from malnutrition

By Miguel Lo Bianco

TARTAGAL, Argentina (Reuters) – In Argentina, once one of the world’s richest countries and long a major supplier of beef, children are dying of hunger.

In Argentina’s far northern province of Salta, in a small indigenous community plagued by extreme poverty, eight children died in January alone from malnutrition and a lack of access to clean drinking water, health authorities say.

Women from the indigenous Wichi community carry their children who are undergoing treatment for malnourishment at a hospital, in Tartagal, in the Salta province, Argentina, February 27, 2020. Picture taken February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The issue affects other places, too, and has prompted the national government to announce a plan to tackle hunger. The governor of Salta has declared a public health emergency, vowing to work with the national government to provide clean water in the province.

In the province last week, children from the Wichi community, with a population of just 1,200, played barefoot in the mud, outside homes constructed by hand from wood and cloth.

In Tartagal, the small town nearest to where the Wichi live, hospital beds are filled with Wichi children battling malnutrition and a host of other health issues linked to a lack of clean water, health officials said. Sometimes, the children arrive too late to make a recovery, according to Juan Lopez, manager of the hospital in Tartagal.

Complications related to the issues led to the deaths of the eight Wichi children in January, he said. The community also has one of the country’s highest rates of infant mortality.

A spokesman for Argentina’s ministry of health said, “We are constantly liaising with the province of Salta. We are doing food assistance and health assistance.” He added that there were teams from the federal government working in the province.

Liliana Ciriaco, a 45-year-old Wichi woman, said in an interview that there had been “many sicknesses.”

“There are some pregnant women who die, there are children who die, the elderly, too, and we don’t know what is going on,” she said.

A century ago, Argentina was one of the world’s most affluent countries, but it has weathered a series of economic crises in recent decades. The latest one began in 2018. Inflation hovers above 50% and the poverty rate is at 35%. Argentina’s indigenous communities, historically poor, have been especially hard hit.

A child from the indigenous Wichi community holds onto a feeding tube at a hospital, in Tartagal, in the Salta province, Argentina, February 26, 2020. Picture taken February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

For the Wichi community, the lack of access to safe water is a critical problem.

“The place where they access their water source has high salinization or even chemicals that have been used for agriculture, which cause many gastrointestinal diseases, diarrhea, malnutrition and, above all, dehydration,” said Diego Tipping, president of the Red Cross in Argentina.

Argentina’s new center-left President Alberto Fernandez campaigned on promises to address hunger, poverty and unemployment. In December, he announced a plan to combat the issue in the most affected areas of the country called “Argentina Against Hunger.”

Alejandro Deane, president of the Siwok Foundation, which is dedicated to improving water access for indigenous communities in northern Argentina, called the situation for the Wichi community “disastrous.”

“There is no good news. What needs to be done? What can be done? Here we need a long-term plan, not a short-term plan,” Deane said.

(Reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco; Additional reporting by Marina Lammertyn and Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Richard Chang)