In the wealthiest nation in human history, hunger is not a factor of food shortages or personal choices. So what’s the problem?
The United States has a hunger problem. In the wealthiest nation in the whole of human history, hunger is not a factor of food shortages or personal choices. In the United States, hunger is a matter of poverty — the failure to distribute available resources to those that need them.
In a nation where poverty is caused by lack of education, cultural and ethnic bias and an unequal application of investment and opportunity, hunger has became a political issue that is hidden from the public, ignored by the press, overlooked by politicians and criticized by the self-righteous.
An example can be seen in the case of John Taris, a 75-year-old retiree who lives in Chicago with his wife on a $1,500-a-month Social Security benefit. Taris was issued a $75 ticket for volunteering to pick dandelions, which grow wild and are considered a weed, in his local park.
Dandelions are considered to be vegetables, and their leaves are considered a culinary delicacy. When boiled, a cup of leaves delivers 143 percent of the USDA’s recommended daily dosage of vitamin A, 10 percent of the daily dosage of iron and 31 percent of vitamin C. While dandelions grow everywhere in the temperate zone of the United States, fewer grow in the colder landscape of the Upper Midwest.
Even so, Taris’ effort to find an affordable meal resulted in a penalty from officials who were concerned about the impact on the park. The dandelion is not protected, but it resembles flowers that are protected. In addition, the preserve argues that dandelion cultivation is “unsustainable, especially when it’s done for commercial purposes.”
“Quite simply, we could see some of these plants disappear over time,” said Cook County Forest Preserve spokeswoman Karen Vaughan. “It can also have negative impacts on the natural plant and animal communities we’re trying to preserve for the public.”
Poverty in America
Since the banking industry collapse in 2009, a growing segment of the population has been forced to make do with less. A May 30 news release from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis indicated that average “household wealth in real terms, contrary to recent headlines, has not fully recovered; indeed, it is only about halfway back to prerecession levels.” This has created a new class of poor in America — the college-educated, working poor.
One such person spoke of his new socio-economic reality in a blog post for Daily Kos.
“Always there is the underlying assumption, sometimes spoken aloud right to your face, that somehow, this is your fault,” wrote the individual, identified by the screen name “DarkSyde.” “You must be a lazy slacker, a degenerate gambler, or a heavy drug addict; maybe you’re just not trying hard enough. Or maybe your expectations are too high — you expect the government to take care of you? [For what it’s worth] my expectations are damn reasonable: a small home, a reliable vehicle, health care that I won’t lose if I get laid off or sick. Maybe a cheap vacation every year or two. But every single one of those desires is an exercise in fantasy for me now, let alone all of them.
“I think it’s more comfortable for your peers to believe that you are exaggerating, or that something, anything, must be going on, than to accept a person can really work his ass off, be great at their job, be intelligent and have a good education, and still face the threat of homelessness because of terrible pay, or death by lack of health insurance, every single month. But that’s how it is, folks. There may have been a time when the wealthy understood that if they shared just a little bit of their gravy with their employees, the employee would have a real stake in their continued success. If so, that time is long gone and I’m living proof of it.”
According to Feeding America, as of 2011, 46.2 million individuals were living in poverty, as defined by the federal poverty guideline. A total of 9.5 million families were in poverty, including 16.1 million children under the age of 18. By another measure, 50.1 million Americans — 33.5 million adults and 16.7 million children — are “food insecure,” or unsure where they will get their next meal. Nearly 6 percent of all households are extremely food-insecure.
Of the nation’s food-insecure households, only 57.2 percent participated in 2011 in at least one of the three major federal food assistance programs — the National School Lunch Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. More than 6 million U.S. households in the U.S. accessed a food pantry for emergency food at least once in 2011.
Addressing, or not addressing, the issue
Two of the greatest issues involving hunger in the United States are the reluctance to talk about it in public and the urge to minimize or dismiss the problem. For example, Paul Roderick Gregory, in an op-ed for Forbes, wrote, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes data from which one can calculate how many children are hungry on a given day. (Just as the Census Bureau asks where you live on the day of the census). The conclusion for the number of hungry children is (extended drum roll, please): One tenths of one percent of children, or one per thousand. Even if we use the USDA’s liberal measure of hunger as at least one incident over twelve months, we get a child-hunger figure of one percent.
“Such low figures (one in a thousand or one in a hundred) will be ignored by the hunger lobby, food stamps expansionists, and the media because it suggests a problem that has been solved. (Discussion would then have to turn to childhood obesity, as it already has).”
Gregory’s analysis, however, doesn’t match up to the Department of Agriculture’s reporting. The USDA reported that 14.9 percent of all American households were food-insecure. This equates to 17.9 million Americans in 2011. The agency’s measure of the extremely food-insecure population translates to 6.8 million individuals in 2011.
Nine percent of all households had children that had low food security, and 1 percent had very low food security. This means 8.6 million food-insecure children as of 2011.
Using a “day-in-the-life-of” snapshot as an accurate measure of hunger is an incomplete measurement, as a person that eats every other day is still food-insecure — even if he has food today. Even if Gregory’s statement was taken at face value, it would still mean that 71,000 children are hungry today and 71,000 will be hungry tomorrow — but it may not be the same 71,000. As Congress considers the farm bill and other legislation that offers relief to the hungry, many fear that legislators would be willing to accept the argument that there is no problem, instead of making difficult concessions.
Second, the public is not aware of the nature of hunger in this country and places no urgency on it. This is, in part, because the media does not talk about it. According to a 2012 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting study, there were almost no stories on poverty issues during the 2012 election season. Just 17 of the 10,489 campaign stories examined by the study’s authors mentioned a poverty issue in even an abstract manner. PBS ran a single story. ABC, NBC and NPR ran none.
The Urban Institute has found that, since the Great Recession, 51 percent of all Americans have experienced poverty before reaching the age of 65. As of 2010, poverty was at a 20-year high, and it is thought that 10 million people will be pushed into poverty from 2011 to 2014.
“The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net,” reported the Associated Press.