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June 17, 2019
The Soul of East Boston Under Stress

In the past few years, East Boston has become a new frontier for luxury real estate development, resulting in a sharp spike in cost of living and a rapidly widening income gap. This, exacerbated by a political climate hostile toward immigrants in the U.S. is making it difficult, if not impossible, for many long-time residents of the neighborhood to afford food and other basic needs. 

East Boston has long been a community of immigrants. Today, East Boston has the largest foreign-born population of any Boston neighborhood, and it’s this diversity that gives the neighborhood its defining characteristics as a vibrant, multi-national and multi-lingual community. But “Eastie”, is also one of the fastest changing neighborhoods in Boston. In the past few years, Eastie has become an attractive destination for luxury real estate development, resulting in a sharp spike in cost of living and a rapidly widening income gap. This is making it difficult, if not impossible, for many long-time residents of the neighborhood to afford food and other basic needs.  

“Between the gentrification and the high-rises going up everywhere, people are being forced to move or they are being stretched to their financial limits.” stated J. Olivarez, a resident of East Boston for 10 years. “Over the past four years, my monthly rent has increased by $550. I’ve been able to stay in my apartment, but others haven’t been so lucky. I’ve watched a few of my older neighbors have to move out because they couldn’t keep up with the rent.” 

For immigrant families in East Boston, the real-estate boom is only the start of their trouble. A hostile political climate towards immigrants is exacerbating the situation. In October 2018, the Trump administration proposed a change to what is known as “public charge” – a designation placed on immigrants participating in government support programs that can be used to deny admission to the U.S. or permanent resident status. 

Currently, when an immigrant applies for entry or legal status in the U.S., only cash assistance and supplemental security income (SSI) are taken into account when determining “public charge.” But the proposed rule seeks to expand the definition of “public charge” to include use of SNAP (formerly food stamps), among other public benefits. An immigrant is considered a “public charge” if they are deemed likely to become dependent on the government for long-term assistance, and would allow the government to deny green card. One third of U.S. born citizens would struggle to avoid being labeled a “public charge” under this new rule.  

When changes were first announced, Project Bread forecasted there would be a “chilling effect” of immigrant families participating in federal safety net programs out of fear of compromising their immigration status. According to Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey conducted in December 2018, it is happening, and is having the largest impact on Hispanic immigrant families, which comprise the majority of East Boston’s population. The survey revealed that Hispanic adults in immigrant families reported twice as likely to avoid benefit programs (20.6 percent) since the proposed changes were announced, compared with non-Hispanic white (8.5 percent) and non-Hispanic nonwhite *6.0 percent) adults in immigrant families. 

Since these proposed changes, Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline Councilors and SNAP Enrollment Coordinators can testify to the crippling fear residents now have about receiving any federal aid, even at the cost of their health and wellbeing.  

Ana, a mother of two who has lived in the U.S. for half her life and whose both children are citizens, has now been referred to Project Bread by her doctor twice due to food insecurity. She admits to having to skip meals to stretch her budget for the month,. “I have had to work miracles in order to put food on the table. Nothing assures me that any help I receive, even if it’s for survival, takes away the opportunity to be with my children, and that is not something I can afford.” 

Federal nutrition programs, such as SNAP, not only protect people from abject poverty, but can help people reach their potential to thrive physically, emotionally, and economically. The proposed "public charge" regulation, unfortunately, creates a substantial barrier to food for our immigrant neighbors and perpetuates stigma with an inaccurate view of SNAP recipients. While about two-thirds of SNAP recipients are unable to work, because they are children, disabled, or elderly, 80% of SNAP recipients work in the year before or after receiving SNAP. There is no upside to making it harder for people in this country to access healthy, affordable food. In September, 2018, Project Bread’s President, Erin McAleer, submitted a public comment denouncing the proposed Department of Homeland Security rule on Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds to urge the administration to keep these important basic needs programs free from barriers or stigma that deter access for eligible immigrants.    

Based on the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure in 2017, SNAP moved 3.4 million people out of poverty. We also know better nutrition leads to higher productivity and stronger academic outcomes. Assistance programs exist because we recognize that hard work is not always enough. “My husband is a flooring and carpet installer, and I work in education, and even though we work there have been times in our family that we’ve needed to seek help to completely provide for our children’s needs. Sometimes…we have to choose cost value over nutritional value.” shared Elsa Flores, who immigrated to East Boston from El Salvador 16 years ago in search of better opportunities for her family. Immigrants who are eligible for nutrition programs deserve the same helping hand citizens receive without fear. 

Elsa and her family have faced ups and downs since arriving in East Boston. But in recent years, Elsa, like so many, has had to deal with the Trump Administration’s racist, vilifying attacks on Latin American immigrants and the prejudice she has faced when seeking food assistance for her family. The bottom line: the government is scaring people into not applying for food assistance for their families.

As Elsa explains, “The fear and terror that the government is spreading in the news… leads to people being afraid, and we end up thinking it’s better not to apply [for assistance], and maybe it’s better to hold off and try to stretch what little there is to provide for our families.” 

“People need help here [East Boston],” assured Olivarez, “there’s only one soup kitchen that’s open Tuesday’s and just a few food pantries.” One pantry recently  extended their hours to be open on Saturday’s to try to meet the growing need.” Project Bread is also focusing efforts to support the East Boston community. In 2018, Project Bread invested nearly $100,000 in anti-hunger work in East Boston. These investments support a multi-pronged approach to addressing hunger as a basic human right for everyone by ensuring that food insecure residents, regardless of immigration status, have continued access to healthy, affordable nutrition. We have teamed up with schools and community partners to improve the quality of school food and access to school breakfast, lunch, and summer meals programs. In partnership with the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, we provide subsidized CSA shares, emergency food vouchers, and provide support to food-insecure patients as well as offer case management support for SNAP enrollment. And funds raised through Project Bread’s annual Walk for Hunger have made it possible to provide financial support to bolster local emergency food programs and farm and garden initiatives that made fresh produce available and affordable for the community. 

“I moved to East Boston because I loved the neighborhood, this city” Elsa shared, “Obviously in the past, it was not so difficult. There were far less comments and racist acts, they existed, but not as much as today. I think now that if I look for help, I will not have it, and I’m having to decide, should I take this money and pay my rent; should I go buy food for my children? We [immigrants] are human beings that also need food to survive...that would be my message.” 

Author(s): Project Bread

Filed under: Informing Public Policy, Get the Facts, News and Events, 50th videos cape, Community Solutions, Poverty, About & History, For the Media, Ways to Give