e-mail us


In suburbs, cities and rural areas, author puts a face on hunger

by Loretta Schwartz-Nobel
HarperCollins, 272 pages, $24.95


In 1981 Loretta Schwartz-Nobel wrote an award-winning book titled Starving in the Shadow of Plenty. This was a period in which hunger issues were a part of the American awareness of social issues, as they were in the mid-’60s. She has returned to the hunger issue in this book and was shocked to discover the extent and rampant impact of hunger on millions of Americans.

She provides the statistics to document the extent of hunger and food insecurity in the United States. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed that more than 36 million Americans -- one-third of them children under age 12 -- suffer from “limited or uncertain” access to food. As she points out, numbers can be numbing, especially such large numbers. What she is doing in this book is trying to put a face on hunger and poverty in America by presenting case studies of families that don’t have food or money.

It is a broad portrait that describes people in many walks of life who have no “safety net” when it comes to food and housing, and are forced to rely on ill-founded public policies. Our inept public policy related to food and hunger destroys families, robs adults of self-esteem, and especially impacts children physically and emotionally.

Janet Poppendieck noted in an article titled “Typification of Hunger in America” that we rediscover hunger every 20 or 30 years. What changes, she noted, is how American society responds to the rediscovery.

Dan Rather in a CBS program commemorating the 30-year anniversary of Edward R. Murrow’s “Legacy of Shame” broadcast, sadly laments the continued neglect of those who have no food, including those who work arduously in the fields to get what we eat to our tables. He closes his program suggesting that 30 years from that date, someone else will be doing yet another program on those who are hungry and those who toil that we might eat cheaply.

Schwartz-Nobel’s portraits will surprise many. One chapter deals with hunger among the affluent. The image is of upper- and middle-class mothers/wives who find themselves in financial straits due to unexpected divorce by insensitive males. Doctors and lawyers do not fare well in this chapter. For women who opt for traditional family arrangements, who have not been in the workforce for years and are without contemporary skills for emergent professions, the shortage of money and resources due to an unexpected divorce can result in hunger and homelessness. Legal loopholes in the system prevent reasonable resolution of economic issues and compound the sense of despair and lack of personal pride.

Another chapter deals with urban and rural poor, both in the North and South. The struggles that these people face are clearly the result of structural conditions, which are hard for any individual to overcome. The lack of transportation, public assistance offices and telephones create obstacles that make Marks, Ala., in the 1990s look much the same as it did in the 1960s.

The gang presence, violence and lack of jobs, reminiscent of Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, make poverty and hunger a way of life in the inner city. Pressures to get married or to have children out of wedlock can have devastating effects. The reader needs to appreciate the self-devaluation that results in one person interviewed saying, “Having a baby is the only thing a girl can do to feel that she is good for something.” This is clearly not the solution to a critical problem.

A third chapter uncovers the myth that the military “takes care of its own.” Particularly among the lower ranks, pay is often inadequate to support family life. It is not unusual for military families to be on food stamps, and many experience the loss of pride that this can engender. Many military benefits, such as housing, occur on an “as available” basis, and others are benefits for the military personnel but not for their wives and children. Bureaucratic defensiveness and insensitivity become barriers to those who make efforts to help enlisted men and women struggle with financial shortcomings that lead to food and furniture shortages. Combined with often sudden and/or long periods of separation during tours of duty by one parent or the other, families struggle to survive. Many do not realize how young and inexperienced many in the military are, and the amount of responsibility given to them.

A fourth chapter de-scribes an increasing number added to the population of the hungry and homeless: the working poor. The Welfare to Work legislation of 1994 created a serious situation for many families for whom there is no work. Those who do manage to find low-income, below poverty wage jobs find critical benefits such as food stamps cut off. For the working poor, one crisis (economic, medical or transportation) can create a downward spiral that results in hunger and homelessness.

Some facts will shock the uninformed. Despite the low unemployment rate in 2002, there are more in poverty and more children without homes than in the 1930s. Budget cuts in many federal programs have resulted in large increases in the homeless and large increases among those that depend on food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters to survive. “The political will is to eliminate welfare, not poverty,” the author writes. The stories told in this book make clear that the families of hungry and poor people are often caring families. However, survival pressures often “force” honest people to steal if that is the only way children can be fed.

There is a fear among many of the middle class not to be taken advantage of by the poor. This often results in situations where what aid is given stigmatizes those to whom it is given. As a society, we have not learned to err on the side of charity. In an interesting parable that reflects the focus of our society, Schwartz-Nobel notes that if you find a $10 bill on the street you will want to pick it up, although it may be dirty. The same is not true of dirty people. There are many examples that show the poor are often more charitable to those in need than are the affluent.

Two themes find a place in almost all of these case studies. One is the way in which our public policies and the institutions we have to serve the poor demean them and destroy their sense of self worth. The second theme is the lack of American political will to make substantive structural changes. We continue with public policies that keep the poor in poverty and the hungry in need of food.

Our response to the current plight of hunger in America is based upon images of an “emergency” that is temporary and will soon go away. All we need is some charitable people of good will to help out in the interim. However, without changing the policies that suggest that people do not have the right to food and shelter, and that government has no legal responsibility to provide what was once considered an indispensable safety net, starvation and malnutrition will continue for many.

Growing Up Empty is not without aspects that can be criticized. Any text that attempts to portray a problem through a case study approach must provide examples that strike the reader as both typical and compelling. There are places where this goal could be more adequately fulfilled. However, the book is of value as it will re-sensitize the reader to both the scope of hunger in America and the many people that experience it.

C. Lincoln Johnson is associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003