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Hungry in America


“It has long been an article of faith among the American people that no one in a land so blessed with plenty should go hungry.”

These words, taken from the President’s Task Force on Food Assistance in 1984, continue to describe how most Americans think about hunger in their country.

And yet a painful paradox of contemporary America is that in an affluent society many of its most vulnerable members sometimes go hungry. One in every four people in a soup kitchen line is a child, reports America’s Second Harvest, which serves 23.3 million people annually and is the nation’s largest organization of emergency food providers.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 12 million children under the age of 18, about 16 percent, live in poverty, defined by the government as an income below $17,650 for a family of four. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops, is conducting a two-year campaign to educate Americans about poverty at home. Barbara Stephenson, director of communications for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, said focus groups indicate that many Americans incorrectly believe the highest incidence of poverty occurs among the elderly.

In fact, children make up the largest poor population in the United States, and overall about 31 million Americans live in poverty. “With more than 31 million residents, Poverty, USA, is the second-largest state in America,” reports the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Among the rich nations of the world, only Mexico has a higher child poverty rate than the United States. Comparing international child poverty, UNICEF found a far higher rate of child poverty in the United States than in Japan, Germany, France, Belgium, or any of the Scandinavian countries. The United States also has a greater percentage of its children living in poverty than do Turkey, Greece, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Deborah Weinstein of the Children’s Defense Fund said, “Other countries definitely do a better job of protecting their children than the United States does. We don’t do as much as other countries do in terms of children’s allowances or family allowances through the tax system or social services system, and we don’t offer the kind of income supplements or wage supplements that are offered in other countries. We offer something, but we don’t offer as much.” Weinstein is director of the family income division of the fund, which is a private, nonprofit organization that lobbies on behalf of children.

That America’s children are among its poorest citizens is worrisome. Hunger is a concomitant of poverty, and children who do not receive an adequate diet risk permanent damage. Undernourished children may suffer cognitive and psychological impairment that can be irreversible. They are more likely to suffer illnesses that force them to be absent from school. At school, they are more likely to have trouble concentrating on their studies and bonding with teachers and classmates. They perform more poorly on standardized tests and experience higher dropout rates later in school, which in turn affect job and income mobility.

America’s Second Harvest recently published a comprehensive study of hunger in the United States based on interviews with 32,000 clients and surveys of 24,000 charitable hunger-relief agencies in its network. Hunger in America 2001 reports that 18.4 percent of clients said their child or children had skipped meals within the last 12 months because there wasn’t enough money for food. Slightly more than 26 percent of all client households stated that their child/children were sometimes or often not eating enough during the previous 12 months because they couldn’t afford more food.

Though it’s often believed that hunger is a problem of the homeless, the chronically unemployed and the inner cities, the study found that 45 percent of clients at the pantries, kitchens and shelters America’s Second Harvest serves are white and 47 percent of all emergency food recipients live in rural or suburban areas. Women represent nearly two-thirds of adults seeking food assistance. Thirty-nine percent of households seeking food assistance include at least one employed adult and 39 percent of the members of households served by America’s Second Harvest are children under the age of 18. The organization feeds 9 million children annually.

The economic boom times of the ’90s helped reduce the number of American children living below the poverty line to the lowest level in 20 years, but experts fear the recession of the last year is reversing that trend.

In December 2001, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported a sharp increase in hunger. In 25 of 27 major cities surveyed, requests for emergency food assistance rose an average of 23 percent. Resources available to respond to that request increased just 12 percent. Eighty-five percent of the cities surveyed said emergency food assistance facilities have had to decrease the amount of food they provide or the number of times a family or individual can receive food.

“We’re seeing more and more people and we’re having to turn people away,” said Maurice Weaver, spokesman for America’s Second Harvest. Because of the shortfall in food, America’s Second Harvest has declared a national call to action for Feb. 27. A news conference and testimonial on Capitol Hill in Washington will bring together leaders in the food industry, government and labor unions to discuss the hunger crisis in America. The goal of America’s Second Harvest campaign is to raise 365 million pounds of food to feed hungry Americans.

“The nature of hunger has changed over the last 50 years,” explained Doug O’Brien, the director of public policy and research of America’s Second Harvest. “What we’re seeing in soup kitchens is that hunger is not a problem of the homeless. You’re now as nearly likely to see a single mother with kids as a homeless male in soup kitchens.”

O’Brien and others note that it is the working poor who are increasingly served by emergency food aid. Though the last decade saw a tremendous expansion of economic growth, much of that growth occurred in high-tech fields that require a higher-educated, more skilled workforce. People at the bottom end of the wage scale saw very little growth in real wages. That was just beginning to change when the economic downturn hit, said Beatrice Rogers, the dean of academic affairs at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition, Science and Policy at Tufts University and acting director of Tufts’ Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, the proportion of poor children who live in families with a working adult rose to 37 percent in 2000, up from 33 percent in 1999, and more than double the proportion in 1991 of 18 percent. From 1995 to 2000, the number of unemployed parents dropped almost by 700,000, Weinstein said, a reduction that was largely erased in just one year, from 2000 to 2001.

“The lesson of the prosperity we’ve just been through is that the huge majority of parents work, but their earnings alone are not enough to lift themselves out of poverty,” Weinstein said.

Hunger experts report that growing numbers of Americans are turning to private charity for food assistance rather than the Food Stamp Program, which is considered the first line of defense in America’s nutrition safety net. America’s Second Harvest reports that the organization has seen a 9 percent increase in demand since 1997, while participation in the Food Stamp program is down sharply, even among those who are eligible for the program. During the Fiscal Year 2000, the Food Stamp program served an average of 17.2 million people each month, over half of whom were children under the age of 18. In 1994, the number of people enrolled in the program peaked at 28 million.

“Food Stamps are the safety net program,” said Rogers. “The reason is that Food Stamps constitute the only program in the food safety net for which people are eligible simply because they are poor. Food stamps give you purchasing power for food based not on your sex, not on your age, not on family status, but simply on being poor. It’s the first line of defense. Anyone is eligible for Food Stamps who needs them,” said Rogers.

A July 2001 report to Congress on the decline in Food Stamp participation since 1994 notes that 44 percent of the decline occurred because fewer people were eligible to participate in the Food Stamp Program due to either rising income and assets that placed them above eligibility limits (35 percent) or the effect of welfare reform on Food Stamp eligibility rules (8 percent). But 56 percent of the decline occurred because fewer eligible individuals participated in the program. Officials at the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the Food Stamp program, say it’s unclear why fewer people are taking advantage of the program, but speculate some of it may be public confusion arising from welfare reform, with people cut from the welfare rolls then believing they are no longer eligible for Food Stamps.

Writing in the journal Policy & Practice, Eric M. Bost, USDA undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, also noted that the complexity of program rules may deter participation, especially for the working families that comprise an increasing number of Food Stamp recipients. An average applicant spends two trips and nearly five hours filing an initial application and will spend more than two hours in each recertification, said Bost, who called for a simplification of program rules.

Observing that only 30 percent of the people seeking emergency food aid from food banks are enrolled in the Food Stamps program, Doug O’Brien noted that many working families simply cannot afford to take the time off from work to apply for Food Stamps. “If you don’t have a job, you can spend five hours in the welfare office,” said O’Brien, who described the United States as driving a 1970s program to meet 21st-century needs. With rent and utilities largely fixed, O’Brien said food is one of the few places where people can economize on their expenses.

Efforts are afoot both in Congress and within the USDA to streamline Food Stamp application procedures. The USDA is also about to initiate a campaign to increase awareness of the summer food program for children, which it believes is underutilized. While the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program reach millions of poor and low-income children, far fewer children are enrolled in the summer food program, which makes lunch available to poor and low-income children through sponsoring community centers, Parks and Recreation departments, YMCAs, schools, and churches during the summer.

These along with measures to increase access to Food Stamps are important steps to reduce child hunger, said Weinstein of the Children’s Defense Fund. “More broadly, helping families get out of poverty is critical,” Weinstein said. “We ought to be changing our welfare program so that its goal is to get families out of poverty, to enable them to move from welfare to work, to earn as much as possible and when their wages are low to offer them support so that parents can raise their children out of poverty.”

Related Web sites

America’s Second Harvest

Catholic Campaign for Human Development

Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy

Children’s Defense Fund

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002