The 2012 presidential campaign is gathering force and with it a sense of the issues that will dominate the national conversation in the months ahead. With unprecedented amounts of money flooding into the campaigns -- thanks in part (but only in part) to super PACs -- both the campaigns and ultimately our government will focus on problems backed by big money and armies of lobbyists and interest groups. Unfortunately there are also problems that affect people so vulnerable and voiceless that there are no markets -- economic markets or political markets - dedicated to solving them. Serious as these problems are, they tend to go unaddressed.
For example, one issue that you don't see talked about is hunger, even though 46 million Americans are on SNAP (food stamps) for the first time in the history of our country. Almost half of them are children. The national conversation in anticipation of the Supreme Court's forthcoming decision on Obama's health care bill makes frequent references to the 44 million Americans without access to health care, but we hear hardly a word of the 46 million Americans without access to enough food. Why is that?
One reason is that access to affordable health care is an issue that resonates with the politically all-important middle class. They are at the center of the bulls-eye for the Obama and Romney campaigns as well as most Congressional and gubernatorial races. It is inviolate conventional wisdom that you don't win without the large bloc of middle class voters.
America's poorest, on the other hand, are not considered a decisive voting bloc, and the campaign will likely go right through to Election Day on November 6 with barely a mention of them. Children suffering from hunger make no campaign contributions, belong to no advocacy organizations, and have no lobbyists. They are not just under-represented in the process, they are invisible.
The irony is that childhood hunger is solvable, and the solutions -- programs like school lunch and breakfast and summer meals -- have long had bipartisan support, as has, to a lesser degree, SNAP. The problem is that not enough children have access to those solutions.
Eighteen states now have No Kid Hungry campaigns to close that gap and both Democratic and Republican governors have championed it effectively, enrolling hundreds of thousands of children into existing programs (and bringing tens of millions of dollars in benefits into their states.) They know that childhood hunger is also tied directly to educational achievement, health and health care costs, and ultimately our nation's economic competitiveness.
Ending poverty may be complex but feeding a child is not. This is not Syria or Sudan, not entitlement reform or credit swaps. This is a problem for which we know the solution and have the necessary resources, but lack only the will. Look at what we did on behalf of older Americans when we put our mind to it: In 1959 one third of Americans 65 and older were poor. Today that is only 9 percent.
Government once played the noble role of fighting for those among us without champions. That abandoned territory now is too often the province of nonprofits, foundations, and philanthropy, whose good intentions and entrepreneurial approaches lack the resources to scale. Sadly we are long past the point of expecting nobility from politicians of either party, but we should still demand it of ourselves. There's a role for everyone to play in the fight to end childhood hunger -- whether the path is philanthropy, advocacy, politics, or community service. If nothing else, we can raise our voices to insist that our leaders not only focus on problems that special interests can pay to solve, but on those affecting the most vulnerable and voiceless as well.
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