Tomorrow is National Hunger Awareness Day, recently created to call attention to the growing problem of domestic hunger. But it will take more than awareness – or even large-scale charitable efforts – to solve this crisis. In order to banish hunger once and for all, America's political leaders must take serious, concrete actions.
In my work with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, every day I hear about working parents who don't earn enough to put food on the table, seniors forced to choose between buying food and prescription drugs, and children who face hunger because they've had the bad luck of being born into families that are poor. My colleagues in the nonprofit sector across the country continually hear similar stories.
This is particularly troubling because the United States is the richest and most agriculturally abundant nation in the history of the world. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 34 million people, including 12 million children, lived in households that suffered from hunger or struggled at the brink of hunger in 2002. Those numbers increased significantly since 2000. Today, lines at the nation's more than 30,000 charitable soup kitchens and food pantries are longer than at any time since the Great Depression, with these hard-pressed agencies running out of the food and other resources needed to meet the growing demand.
Adding to the tragedy of people going hungry in America is that we face a growing obesity epidemic= But what most people don't know is that the inability of people in poverty to afford nutritious food is actually one of the key causes of obesity.
What explains this irony? In one word: politics. An overwhelming majority of Americans agree that the problem should be solved, and recent history shows it can be solved. (In the 1970's – when government nutrition and anti-poverty programs served a higher percentage of those in need and the minimum wage was more likely to pay for basic expenses – hunger was dramatically reduced.) Yet today our political system is failing to take clear steps needed to improve the situation.
Surely a succession of conservative presidents and congresses deserve the lion's share of blame for policies that slash social programs; transfer wealth from low- and middle-income Americans to the mega-rich through tax cuts; and keep the federal minimum wage at a level thousands of dollars below the poverty line – all while finding a way to scapegoat low-income Americans. The Bush Administration is continuing the conservative tradition of blaming poor people for being poor. The President has said poverty is more likely to be caused by personal faults than by a poor economy, and Housing Secretary Alponso Jackson told Congress last month that "being poor is a state of mind, not a condition."
But we shouldn't let liberals off the hook for failing to offer a serious anti-poverty agenda and refusing to challenge the status quo of under-performing social programs – all while patronizing low-income people with the expectation that government programs may make them marginally less miserable, but won't help them move out of poverty.
True, the Clinton Administration notably expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit and significantly increased funding for anti-hunger programs in its first budget. The Administration also helped people move from welfare to work and raised the minimum wage. But, faced with incessant opposition from Congress and the political imperative to fight mostly for the "forgotten middle class," the Clinton Administration failed to fully capitalize upon the best economy in decades by ending domestic hunger.
Why are the poor attacked by conservatives and neglected by liberals? Perhaps the chief reason is the political powerlessness of low-income Americans. But the vast majority of the more than 22 million adult Americans who are hungry or at the brink of hunger are eligible to vote. In contrast, approximately 13 million people belong to AFL-CIO member unions and roughly four million people belong to the National Rifle Association. The numbers are clear: if low-income Americans were to join together for common purposes, they could easily become the most powerful interest group in America.
With such power, low-income, hungry Americans could successfully demand a new type of American politics, ushering in a new era of "radical moderation" that spurs fundamental, massive social change based on mainstream values such as work, faith, ambition, and family. Such a movement could support the following five-point plan to end hunger and dramatically reduce poverty in America:
- Ensure that all Americans get enough food by expanding the size and scope of existing, effective federal nutrition programs, such as Food Stamps, School Breakfast and Lunch, and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Programs, and at the same time radically reform these programs to simplify applications, reduce program bureaucracies, harmonize eligibility standards, and provide a seamless web of services.
- Give low-income families concrete, meaningful tools to earn money, save, and develop assets without losing other government benefits.
- Tie increases in the federal minimum wage, which has not risen since 1997, to increases in congressional salaries, which have increased seven times in the same time period.
- Bolster community food security by using food as a central organizing tool of neighborhood development by dramatically expanding the number of community gardens, farmer's markets, and food-related micro-enterprises across America.
- Do something serious about global poverty and hunger, thereby reducing the number of desperately poor immigrants who are forced to come America and take low-paying jobs that keep them on the brink of hunger and poverty.
These efforts may sound expensive, but, by reducing duplicative and overlapping program bureaucracies, we can feed far more people than we currently do with only relatively small increases in spending. Any additional money needed could easily by found by reducing corporate welfare payments now made by the federal government to multinational agribusinesses.
This Hunger Awareness Day, let's do more than bemoan the tragedy of hunger. Let's begin to wipe it out.
Joel Berg is Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, a nonprofit group that performs advocacy and communications, technical assistance, leadership development, and entitlements outreach work on behalf of the more than 1,000 food pantries and soup kitchens in the City. He previously worked for the Clinton Administration from 1993-2001, most recently serving as Coordinator of Community Food Security at the Department of Agriculture.