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Breadline USA

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Last year, an elderly lady named Billy MacPherson recounted to me a story. When she and her husband George were young, she said, they'd often run out of money before their next pay checks came through. They and their children would eat pancakes with syrup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, she said. It was cheap, and it filled their stomachs. When the syrup ran out, she said simply, they'd just eat pancakes.

That was nearly sixty years ago. In the decades since, hunger declined and in many parts of the country all-but-disappeared. Now, however, it's back, and back with a vengeance.

These days, the MacPhersons run a food pantry in a poor rural community in the far north of California. They started it a few years back, Billy said, when they realized that more and more of their neighbors were finding that the "month was longer than their money." They were working, but they still couldn't make ends meet.

Crushed by the housing crisis, by gas price spikes over the past several years, by the spreading crisis regarding access to affordable health care, by wages and hours being cut back and benefits denuded, tens of millions of Americans have sunk deep into poverty over the past decade. Eight years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich chronicled the lives of the working poor in Nickel and Dimed. Since then, their condition has only gotten worse. Their tragedy predates the more general recession, but it has been cruelly exacerbated by it.

This week, my book Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It hits the bookstores. In it, I tell the stories of people like Aubretia Edick, a Wal-Mart worker in New York whose hours were cut so extensively last year that, after taxes, she ended up with less than $200 some weeks. She was eating canned soups, pasta, occasionally some tuna, and lots and lots of tea. Some weeks, she claimed to have only about $15 available to spend on food. I tell the stories of mothers in Idaho who have run out of cash and burned through their credit and spend their summer months waiting around parks where charities give out food bags to children who, during the school year, subsist on free breakfasts and lunches. I tell the stories of retirees entirely reliant on food pantries in communities in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles.

Last month, over 32 million Americans were receiving food stamps. That was a record; in fact, for most of the last eighteen months, new food stamp records have been set every thirty days. But that doesn't mean we're doing a good enough job identifying hungry Americans and hooking them up with government assistance. About one in three people poor enough for food stamps aren't on them (they are embarrassed to apply, they can't take time off work to visit the government office during working hours, they fear involvement with officialdom, or they don't know about the program). Millions more are deemed just too affluent for food stamps, or they have assets that push them over the qualification thresholds. For them, when the money runs out, their only options are to visit a local food bank or pantry, or to eat meals at a soup kitchen. Talk to any food bank staffer these days and they'll tell you the numbers visiting their facilities are soaring, and that, for the first time, they're seeing huge numbers of the working poor attaching themselves to the breadlines.

And yet, there's clearly no shortage of food in the country. This isn't hunger caused by crop failure; it isn't a famine. In Oklahoma, for example, people aren't flooding the food banks because of a cataclysm-of-the-land like that experienced in the state during the Dust Bowl years. Rather, it's chronic "food insecurity" (the government's somewhat antiseptic term for a state of near-permanent anxiety about where one's next meal will come from, how to put food on the table for one's kids). People are going hungry because they don't have the money to buy adequate supplies of food from the supermarket. And that insecurity is a consequence of a host of economic failings that have pushed millions of already vulnerable people over the edge into hard-core poverty.

The insecurity is a consequence of a deeply inadequate minimum wage; of absurdly narrow government definitions of "poverty" and thus absurdly low cut-off points for people to access government programs such as food stamps and low income heating assistance. It's a consequence of high gas prices that, by mid-2008, were literally forcing poor, rural workers, who had no choice but to drive vast distances on a daily basis, to choose between buying gas to get to work and feeding their families. It's a consequence of an epidemic of large companies defaulting on their pension obligations -- with more than a nod and a wink from the Bush administration in the years leading up to 2008 -- and pushing retirees and near-retirees into destitution.

As the Obama administration looks to re-imagine the social compact, tackling hunger ought to be high up their priority list. And that means not simply throwing more money into food programs, but going in at the front-end, finding ways to prevent so many people ending up impoverished in the first place.