05/12/2010 03:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A "Shanda" on America: Hunger in the 21st Century

My mother, may she rest in peace, would have called this a shanda, the Yiddish word for a shame, something you're not proud of and that you'd rather your neighbor doesn't find out.

So shame is what I thought about and felt when I read the latest survey by academic researchers for the Meals on Wheels Association of America. It found that in 2008, at the beginning of this Great Recession, nearly six percent of Americans over the age of 60, more than 2.7 million, suffered from hunger. Not just the lack of enough food, but hunger. In the United States of America in the 21st Century.

But the deeper shame was in the 2009 survey, which found that the trend upward was especially discernible between 2001 and 2007, the years of tax cuts for the wealthy and a couple of pointless wars, when the number of older people (especially women) experiencing hunger rose by 700,000 to upwards of 3 million.

Now, as a result of the recession, when many programs for the aged and poor were reduced, partly to pay for those tax cuts, that figure has reached to over 3 million, and with unemployment over 10 percent the figure is still climbing.

The highest concentration of hunger risk among older people are in those states with low or no income taxes and fewer social insurance programs: Mississippi, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina and Oklahoma. These states, most of them conservative, also have higher concentration people with only a high school education, plus a higher number of blacks and Hispanics and older people living in poverty. The South remains the most ignorant and badly led part of the country.

More definitive studies of hunger in the U.S. are published yearly by the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture. But these studies refer to the problem as "food insecurity," which was begun during the Reagan administration, which named "ketchup" as a food and denied there was hunger in the U.S. Nevertheless, food insecurity means not knowing where or when you're getting your next meal.

In its latest study, noted on an inside page of the New York Times last November, the number of Americans who lived in households that lacked access to adequate food rose to nearly 50 million, the highest level since the government began tracking food insecurity 14 years ago. Thus, at some time during the year, 50 million Americans, including 17 million infants and children and more than 5 million older, people went hungry.

According to the Times, about a third of 506,000 households in which children and older adults faced hunger, they skipped meals, cut portions or tried to make do with food stamps. Now 36 million people have applied for food stamps, a 40 percent increase over two years ago. But the benefit is only $133 a month, not very generous for the richest debtor nation on earth.

More than 6.7 million Americans who are described as having "low food security" regularly lack sufficient food to eat. Nearly all reported that the food did not last a month.

These dismal facts have not made much of a dent in the news, for hunger in the U.S., a huge story 50 years ago -- when the nation began a war on poverty -- has now become a silent epidemic. But the foreign press, representing nations where hunger is unknown, has made much of America's troubles.

The British Guardian's headline on Nov. 17, was "Record Numbers Go Hungry in The U.S." Another Agriculture Department global study of food security found that the percentage of households in Canada classified as "food insecure" was 7 percent, compared to 12.6 percent in the U.S., and that was before the recession.

As you might expect, Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation told the Times "Very few of these people are hungry. When they lose jobs, they constrain the kind of food they buy. This is regrettable, but it's a far cry from a hunger crisis."

James Weill, whose department did the study, replied, " Many people are outright hungry, skipping meals. Others say they have enough to eat but only because they're going to food pantries or using food stamps. We describe it as 'households struggling with hunger.'"

Perhaps we should take comfort in the Agriculture Department's overview of food security assessment which found that while there is no such hunger problem in most other industrialized nations with strong social welfare programs, the American problem of food insecurity is far worse in the developing world.

Sliding onto a related subject, the recession and the holes it has torn in retirement savings mean the percentage of people who expect that Social Security will be their major source of income has risen from 27 percent to 34 percent. That's the highest percentage since 2001, according to a Gallup survey. That translates to 54 percent of retirees who said in 2008 that they expected Social Security to be their major source of income.

This comes at a time when older Americans were frightened by what seemed scary news-that for the first time, this year and next and maybe a couple more years, Social Security will be paying out more money that it will take in in payroll taxes. The reason is obvious: high unemployment means millions of jobless workers are not paying payroll taxes. But despite that frightening news, as economist Dean Baker points out, what SS will pay out will be a minuscule portion of the $2.5 trillion it holds in government bonds.

Some skeptical readers insist these bonds (in a vault in West Virginia ) are just so many IOUs. Well, so are your personal checks and the treasury bonds you hold. But the SS bonds, which produce about $700 million a year in interest for the Social Security trust fund, are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. It would help SS if the law permitted the agency to get a higher rate of interest, or if Social Security could remove the current cap ($106,000) on taxable earnings.

But SS, with its huge trust fund, is a tempting target for people like billionaire Pete Peterson and other deficit hawks who would love to privatize the system and make all that money available to Wall Street. And the shortfalls for the next years has given them an excuse to focus on Social Security, which is self-sustaining and contributes nothing to the deficit.

For example, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Social Security trust fund wold show a deficit in 2010. "This is not true," said Baker, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "The Social Security trust fund is projected to show a surplus of close to $100 billion in 2010...The Journal likely forgot to include interest on the bonds held by the trust fund."

I doubt if the Journal forgot. The Journal did not see the Wall Street crash coming, but would now to take advantage of this temporary problem to turn the social insurance on which millions depend over to those who caused the problem. Shame.

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