Is America Teetering on the Edge of the Hunger Cliff?
One in six Americans will go hungry this year because they don’t always have enough cash on hand to buy the food that they need.
It’s a national disgrace. Yet Republicans in Congress are proposing to make it worse. All but 15 GOP members in the House voted last month to slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps) by $40 billion over the next 10 years. Their bill would knock nearly four million people off food stamps in the first year alone, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
This controversy has focused the spotlight of national attention on questions that usually get little coverage in the press. Who exactly are America’s hungry? Why have their numbers been increasing in recent years?
Forty-six million people are currently enrolled in SNAP, more than double the number who were receiving benefits in 2001. The program’s Republican critics claim the system is rife with fraud, and that many of these enrolled in it are lazy and mooching off the system. Never mind that a disproportionate number of these “moochers” live in traditionally Republican districts in rural areas and in the South.
Representative Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), who voted to shrink the SNAP program, represents a county where 17.8 percent of residents don’t have enough food, according to the group, Feeding America. As I reported in May, together with his father and brother, who farm over 2,500 acres for cotton, Fincher has received roughly $8.9 million in federal farm subsidies over the last 10 years. Yet while he fights to allow rich farmers to remain on the public dole, the congressman would deprive hungry families of dollars a day to keep food on their tables.
Fincher and other Republicans argue that now that the economy is recovering, it's time to scale back food programs for the poor. He quotes from the Book of Thessalonians: "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat."
Perhaps Rep. Fincher didn’t notice that the so-called “recovery” has been anemic and not yet helped many at the bottom of the totem pole who were hit the hardest.
“Wall Street is in hyper-overdrive, but America in terms of job creation, in terms of poverty is not in recovery,” Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger told me. Berg says that poverty rates have not gone down, and that hunger in our country may be at its highest levels since the Great Depression.
“The very people who implemented the conservative policies that sunk our economic ship,” Berg says, “are now complaining about giving food life-preservers to the drowning.”
But the problem is solvable. We know what we need to do to solve our hunger crisis, he says, because we’ve already done it.
“We almost ended hunger entirely in our nation,” according to Berg. “By the late '70s, we had created the modern nutrition safety net, food stamps, WICC, school breakfast and lunch programs... It was in the Reagan era that we started going backwards, and we’ve been going backwards ever since due to rollbacks in several federal safety net programs and fundamental changes in the economy, and particularly the growth of the working poor.”
Berg says the notion that recipients of food aid are lazy and unwilling to work is simply untrue. About half of those receiving food assistance are employed, he says, adding that even some people who are working two or more part-time jobs are not always able to feed themselves and their families.
For the working poor, hunger can be episodic. Say you’re a veteran recently returned from Afghanistan who earns a bit over $1000 in a good month from assorted construction jobs, and your car engine has just conked out. Do you repair it so you can get to work next week, or do you spend the money on restocking the larder? Or you’re a retiree in Peoria trying to stretch your monthly pension and Social Security checks to cover a new flurry of drug copays. Maybe you’ll skimp on the milk and fresh produce for a spell and fill up on ramen noodles and discount pancake mix... When money is tight, you still need to pay the rent, the medical bills, car insurance and the like. The one place where there’s a bit of wiggle room left is the food budget.
Welcome to ranks of the food-insecure, a category that runs the gamut in the U.S. from chronic undernourishment (not malnutrition, but a lack of adequate nutrition to stay fully healthy) to the “part-time hungry—people who sometimes have enough to eat, and sometimes don’t.
The number of Americans who are food-insecure reached epidemic levels (49 million people by some estimates) after the financial crisis, and has not gone down since. Contrast this to Europe, which has virtually eliminated hunger through generous social welfare programs, and Canada, whose rate of food insecurity for equally poor people is half of our own.
It has become a journalistic cliche to say that the hungry in America are invisible—we just don’t see them. In fact, the opposite is true: we see them all the time, but we don’t recognize them. That’s because the hungry rarely fit our stereotypes. Most are white, many would self-identify as “middle class.” All too frequently, they are young. One in five children in our land of plenty suffer from on again, off again hunger.
The summer, when kids are no longer getting regular meals through federally funded free or reduced-price school breakfast and lunch programs, is the worst season for hunger in America. Food pantries and other emergency food-providers invariably report that demand peaks from June through August. Some young people go so far as to purposely fail their classes so they can go to summer school and get nutritious meals, according to Eric Cooper, the chief executive of the San Antonio Food Bank.
Another spike in hunger happens toward the end of each month when food stamp and other government checks begin to run out. In fact, a 2011 report by the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees the SNAP program, has found that more than half the families that receive stamps take just two weeks to use up their full benefit, making for lean times during the second half of the month. A study conducted in Chicago showed that disciplinary problems like fighting, vandalism and weapons possession among children in families that receive food stamps increased by almost 50 percent in the final week of the month compared with the first week.
America’s hungry don’t always look the part. They are less likely to be skinny than obese, which only seems like a contradiction so long as you don’t understand that hunger in the U.S. can be less about eating too few calories than about consuming too many cheap and empty ones. Poor food quality, not quantity is the real key to our homegrown hunger.
I spoke to Maajidah Newbold, a part-time actress from Manhattan, who told me it’s a struggle to keep enough food at home. “I just can’t afford it. I rely on my food stamps, but the $150 I get a month is gone in two weeks. After that I go to soup kitchens and food pantries.” When she can’t afford fruits and vegetables, she stocks up on bread and soda. “They say that poor people don’t know what healthy food is, but I know, I just don’t always have enough money to buy it,” Newbold says.
Poor nutrition weakens the immune system and undermines overall health. In our youngest children—and also for the fetus in the womb—hunger stunts physical development and impairs a wide variety of brain functions, often irreversibly and for life. It is arguably the single most accurate predictor of poor performance in the classroom. It also forecasts days missed from school; hungry kids, not surprisingly, get sick more often and for longer periods. In people of all ages, poor nutrition exacerbates the risks from a whole range of chronic illnesses such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and cardiovascular disease, not to mention depression and psychological problems.
The real irony of the Republican effort to cut food stamp benefits in the name of trimming government waste, is that there is quite possibly no less wasteful program in the federal budget. For every dollar spent on making sure that children especially have got enough to eat, food activists argue that the U.S. saves in special education costs, in lifelong health and hospitalization costs, in prison costs.
But Joel Berg says that even if the latest Republican attempt to cut food stamps fails, recipients will see their benefits reduced (by an average of $30 to $50 per household for a family of three), when a temporary boost to the SNAP program voted in as part of the Recovery Act in 2009 is scheduled to end on November 1.
On October 2, activists and religious leaders gathered at America’s largest place of worship, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on Manhattan’s Upper Westside to protest what they called ”the hunger cliff,” the date, now less than a month away, when automatic cuts in food stamps take effect.
Triada Stampas a senior director of the Food Bank of New York City, the largest emergency food service in the country, told the gathering that these impending reductions will take away 76 million meals from poor people in New York City alone, which is more than all the food pantries, soup kitchens and home delivery programs put together provide in a year.
Stampas says that “charity alone is not going to solve this problem.” Only government can do that. But with sequestration and the federal shutdown, many vital programs are in peril. The Emergency Food and Shelter Program and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Food and Nutrition Service have already suffered hits. The level of food stamp benefits remains in question.
Joel Berg says that illusionists in the Congress are engaged in a process of misdirection: “With one hand they hold up the shiny object they want you to see, and with the other hand, they’re hiding the rabbit that they don’t want you to see. They are bringing up the fiscal cliff, bringing up the government shutdown, bringing up Obamacare—all to distract the American people away from the fact that poor Americans are having their food benefits, their housing benefits, their basic survival benefits cut.”
Berg and others are calling on the U.S. to get its priorities straight and step back from the hunger cliff that threatens millions of the most vulnerable among us.