Hungry in the world's richest country

Alan Maass analyzes a government report underlining the grim fact that poverty and hunger stalk the poor and working poor in America at shockingly high levels.

Waiting for help outside a Salvation Army food bank (Zuma)Waiting for help outside a Salvation Army food bank (Zuma)

THE NUMBER of Americans vulnerable to hunger grew sharply in 2008 to nearly 50 million--or about one in every six men, women and children in the U.S.

The Agriculture Department's official figures show that the number of people suffering "food insecurity" last year jumped by more than one-third in just 12 months, reaching the highest level since the government began reporting this statistic a decade and a half ago.

About one-third of the 49 million people threatened with hunger were part of households that had what researchers call "very low food security"--meaning that one or more members of the household skipped meals, ate reduced portions or otherwise didn't get enough to eat at some point in the year.

The rest of those counted as "food insecure" typically ate enough, according to the report, but only by relying on cheaper or less nutritious foods, and by getting help from government programs like food stamps or from soup kitchens or food pantries.

Some of the report's details paint an even grimmer picture. For example, the number of households where children faced "very low food security" climbed faster than other categories--reaching more than half a million, an increase of nearly 60 percent over the year before.

All told, almost one in four children live with the threat of hunger. Among the over 10 million households headed by a single mother, more than one in three reported some form of food insecurity.

And these statistics are from 2008--before the worst months of job losses and unemployment hit earlier this year. "[T]he escalating unemployment rate and the number of working poor lead us to believe that the number of people facing hunger will continue to rise significantly over the coming year," said Vickie Escarra, president of Feeding America, which runs a network of 200 food banks around the country.

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ESCARRA AND others dealing with the consequences of hunger in 21st-century America describe a situation that confirms a trend underway for at least a decade--that "food insecurity" in the U.S. isn't confined to the poorest of the poor, as it is often portrayed.

So, for example, a separate federal study from the Agriculture Department's annual report found that even before the recession began, "more than two-thirds of families with children who were defined as 'food insecure' under federal guidelines contained one or more full-time workers," the New York Times wrote in an editorial. "This suggests that millions of Americans were trapped in low-wage jobs before the downturn that made it more difficult for them to provide children with adequate nutrition."

Likewise, some 40 percent of U.S. families who receive government food stamps have "earned income," up from 25 percent two years ago, according to the Financial Times. Agriculture Department officials attribute this to the wage and hour cuts hammering even workers who still have jobs--the average workweek has fallen to 33 hours, the lowest on record, and a record 8.8 million people have to work part-time because they can't find full-time work, according to the Labor Department.

"It seems like a dire warning...that even the jobs people are retaining in this recession aren't at the wage level and hours level that they need to provide for their families," Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, told the Financial Times.

One obvious sign of the recession-driven increase in "food insecurity" is the record number of people participating in the government food stamp program--36 million people in the U.S. now get food stamps, a rise of nearly 40 percent in just two years.

The economic stimulus law passed by Congress in early 2009 increased average food stamp benefits by 17 percent, but the monthly amount works out to only $133 a person--a meager sum compared to what the government is capable of delivering.

And the food stamp program doesn't even reach all those in need of help, thanks to government restrictions. In some states, for example, regulations bar households with more than $2,000 in the bank from receiving food stamps--so many newly unemployed workers are forced to make do without government aid.

Many turn to food banks or food pantries, where requests for help have surged 30 percent in just the last year. Feeding America's Escarrra says her network of food banks served 25 million people, the majority of whom didn't receive food stamps.

Shamia Holloway, communications manager at the Capital Area Food Bank that supplies agencies in the Washington, D.C., area, told the Financial Times: "People who used to donate to the food bank are now coming to the food bank. So imagine the shame--a lot of these people came from good jobs."

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THE TERM "food insecurity" is the government's strange euphemism for hunger. The measure was used by food advocacy organizations during the Reagan administration to challenge the Republican White House's campaign to deny that malnutrition was a problem in America. The Agriculture Department adopted the measure in the 1990s and has kept track of "food insecurity" since--though the Bush administration tried again to get rid of federal surveys in the 2000s.

Not surprisingly, the right is still at it--conservatives responded to the Agriculture Department report this year not with concern, but with critiques of government researchers' methods and definitions.

"Very few of these people are hungry," sniffed Robert Rector, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "When they lose jobs, they constrain the kind of food they buy. That is regrettable, but it's a far cry from a hunger crisis." The Washington Post's Charles Lane lectured, "This recession and its attendant hardships are very real, and we must address them. But there's no need to exaggerate."

Both Rector and Lane, of course, make a comfortable living--and are unlikely to have to worry about "constraining the kind of food they buy."

James Weill, director of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, said the food insecurity statistics ought to be a wake-up call. "Many people are outright hungry, skipping meals," Weill said. "Others say they have enough to eat but only because they're going to food pantries or using food stamps."

Beyond the immediate food emergency, the government's report underlines a long-term reality that "experts" like Rector and Lane prefer to obscure--that poverty and hunger stalk the poor and working poor, year in and year out, at shockingly high levels for the richest country in the world.

A study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that examined 29 years of government data concluded that fully half of U.S. children during the past three decades received food stamps at some point in their childhood. According to the report, nine out of 10 African American children qualified for food stamps.

Hunger is only one part of the scramble to get by in 21st-century America--a country where, despite the vast wealth and power of a small group at the top, the rest of us face a better than even chance we will spend at least one of our years between the ages of 25 and 75 below the poverty line.

That's not an "exaggeration," that's a fact--and it's further evidence of how badly we need a working-class movement to turn the priorities of this society right-side up.