Weekly Briefing

Ridiculous, disgraceful, obscene…

North Carolina children still go to bed hungry each night

Let's get right down to some pretty darned disturbing facts.

Fact #1: In 2007, Americans spent roughly $33 billion on the nation's chief anti-hunger program, Food Stamps. Fact #2: That same year, they spent almost half that amount ($15.7 billion) on feeding their cats and dogs and more than twice as much ($69 billion) on candy and soft drinks. Got that?  According to one view of the data, Americans care only about twice as much about their poor fellow citizens as they do about their pets and half as much as they do about their Diet Cokes.

Now, obviously these comparisons are not complete. There are other government nutrition programs and Americans obviously spend many millions more on charitable food donations. And of course, we know that most Americans hate the idea of hungry people – especially children. But there's also no getting around a simple and pretty screwed up reality highlighted by these numbers: Whether most people know it or not and whether it's intentional or not, our society is putting forth a remarkably lame and inadequate effort to combat hunger.   

Understanding the problem

It's not that we don't know what to do. Though far from perfect, the Food Stamp program is widely recognized as effective and efficient. It has, since being taken nationwide several decades ago, made severe hunger rare in the United States.

But as we near the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, the richest and most powerful nation in the history of humankind continues to piddle around with the funding one of the most basic, core functions (if not the most basic) of government – to assure that its people have enough to eat.

Here some new data spotlighted in a statement issued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities earlier this week:

"Even before the current economic downturn, some 13 million households, containing 36.2 million people, lacked access to adequate food at some point in 2007 because they didn't have enough money for groceries…. These figures are a slight increase over the findings for 2006, but given the dramatic weakening of the economy in recent months, the number of ‘food insecure' households has likely grown considerably in 2008.

Food stamp caseloads – an indicator of those struggling to afford a basic diet – grew by nearly 2 million people between January and August 2008 (the most recent month for which we have data).  The economic downturn also has coincided with a sharp increase in food prices, both of which have undoubtedly exacerbated hardship for many low-income families…. 

  • About 4.7 million of the 13 million food insecure households in 2007 had very low food security, with household members skipping meals or taking other steps to reduce the amount they ate because of a lack of resources. The size of this group and its share of the overall population have risen steadily over the past decade.
  • The number of children with very low food security rose by over 60 percent, to 691,000.
  • The number of food insecure seniors living alone rose by 26 percent, to 783,000."

Here in North Carolina, the situation is equally disturbing. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an estimated 442,000 households in our state live with hunger or the threat of hunger and one in six children (17%) lives in a family that has difficulty affording adequate food. This is in spite of that fact that North Carolina Food Stamp participation has grown significantly over the past decade. Other sobering facts include:

  • A household with a child under six is about twice as likely to suffer from food insecurity as a household with no children.
  • Nationally, only 65 percent of those eligible for food stamps receive them. In North Carolina, the participation rate is estimated to be 58 percent.
  • Increasing the share of eligible households that participate in the Food Stamp Program by just five percentage points, North Carolina would provide food stamps to an additional 67,000 low income North Carolinians, bring $32.2 million into North Carolina's local economy, and result in $61.1 million in new economic activity.

All of this has only been compounded by the recent economic downturn and explosion in world food prices. According to the most recent data, the maximum Food Stamp benefits fall more than $63 short per month of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's estimated cost of a minimally adequate diet.  

Act now and keep acting

The solution to this unacceptable state of affairs is not terribly complicated or difficult to figure out. In the near term, elected officials can make significant progress in reducing human suffering by, in the language of that long and widely disparaged (but in this case, highly accurate) phrase, "throwing money at the problem." In other words, American needs to invest more in Food Stamps – in the level of benefits provided and in the amount spent on outreach to help eligible people to obtain the subsidy.

Is this a perfect solution? No. Will there be problems and bureaucracy and help provided to a few people who ought not to be eligible? Undoubtedly. Any program of such a size and scope – public or private – is sure to encounter such problems. But when compared with the alternative (i.e. millions of innocent children going to bed each night without enough food in their stomachs), there simply should be no debate.

At the stroke of a pen and with no discernible impact on the lives of average, over-fed Americans, Congress can make an enormous dent in this disgraceful problem. Even a 50% increase in the Food Stamp program would cost significantly less than the proposed bailout for the Big Three automakers and about as much as six weeks' of the Iraq occupation.

Such a move would also make perfect sense for action during the lame duck Congress as it fashions economic stimulus solutions. Needless to say, Food Stamps are one item of public investment that we can be sure will be spent right away. According to USDA, each dollar spent on Food Stamps generates $1.84 in economic activity as it cycles through the economy.

In the longer run, national and state leaders need to make a broader and sustained commitment to fighting poverty generally. While good jobs and a healthy economy are clearly the top priority, there is still much to be said for a direct, intentional public work to attack the problem. In 1999, the United Kingdom committed to a plan to eradicate child poverty by 2020. Though far from perfect, the initiative has borne real fruit. In the first five years of the plan, child poverty fell by 23% — just short of the 25% goal. The United States, of course, has not undertaken a commitment of this kind in nearly half a century.

Going forward    

As they prepare to enter a new political era, Americans (and North Carolinians) would do well to take a good, collective look in the mirror – to examine not only our waistlines, but some of our core moral values as well. If we do so in an honest fashion, we might just find that we care at least as much about ending the obscenity of hungry children as we do about supporting our junk food habits and desire for gourmet pet food.   

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