Here is one way to think about where our country is going in 2013: while one percent of the U.S. population is taking home 22 percent of the national income, Congress has passed legislation to eliminate food aid for 4 million poor Americans. Why? Because poverty is regarded as a moral failing -- a failure not of society, but of the poor people themselves. As George Orwell wrote, "It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you."
The Crisis Ministry of Mercer Country, New Jersey -- a non-religious relief organization that fights hunger and homelessness in the impoverished state capital of Trenton -- is on the front lines of this struggle. Just two years ago, a devastating fire at its downtown food pantry destroyed 30 tons of food and rendered its building uninhabitable. But the Crisis Ministry raised the necessary funds to re-open its pantry this fall and is once again serving hundreds of poor families every week. This year, more than 16,000 people will visit the food pantry -- an increase of 22 percent over 2012.
When someone comes in for food, they are assigned a helper, who is usually another of the clients volunteering as part of a job-training program. They are given a quota of cans and packages they can buy, based on how large their family is. The Crisis Ministry also operates its own gardens to combat Trenton's isolation in a "food desert" where nutritious groceries are simply not available.
Just up the road from Trenton is the prosperous university town of Princeton, one of America's richest suburbs. Yet, incredibly, the Crisis Ministry operates a busy food pantry here, too, literally in the shadow of Nassau Hall.
There is nothing romantic about poverty and hunger. They are ugly. But what is even uglier is our need to blame the victims rather than to help heal their plight. The Crisis Ministry is shouldering the task of correcting that injustice at a time when it is needed more than ever.