by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
While the United States proclaims itself the land of limitless opportunity, the shining “nation on a hill” where dreams of prosperity and success become true, the reality on the ground often belies this pastel rhetoric. The reason for this failure is not lack of resources but policies determined by voodoo economics and rabid cruelty. Too many people are unemployed or underemployed. Too many workers are earning poverty-level wages. Too many programs that provide critical assistance to the neediest of our fellow citizens are being cut. Yet the big shots in Congress, who lecture the poor about the need to work hard, still subscribe to the belief that cutting taxes for the rich and granting subsidies to big business will result in rising incomes for everyone else.
One of the most effective measures in assessing a country’s real economic health is the extent of food insecurity among its population. Figures from reliable sources indicate that a shocking number of Americans perpetually live in the shadows of hunger. Over 46 million Americans–roughly 1 in 7 people–are dependent on SNAP, the food stamps program, which has been in the crossfires of a radically regressive Congress. If funding for the program is cut still further, the number of SNAP recipients will go down while the number of people unable to obtain sufficient food will rise.
The 32nd Annual Report on Hunger and Homelessness, issued by the US Conference of Mayors, reveals the extent of hunger in America. Released this past December, the report is far from comprehensive. It covers only 25 major American cities, while much of the hunger in the US is found in rural areas and in smaller towns and cities. Nevertheless, despite this limitation, the report reveals enough to remind us that we need to get our house in order.
An article on the website Alternet entitled “Ten Cities Where an Appalling Number of Americans Don’t Have Enough Food” sums up the findings of the report. Of the 25 cities covered by the report, 71% said the number of requests for emergency food assistance had increased last year, while 82% reported that food pantries and kitchens had to cut the amount of food distributed per visit, and 77% had to turn people away due to lack of resources. In 2015, 84% of cities expect requests for food aid to increase, but many food banks and pantries worry that they may not have the resources to meet these requests. At least 20% of the food being distributed last year came from federal funding (in Los Angeles, it was as high as 51%).
The article surveys the ten cities mentioned in the mayors’ report as at the bottom with respect to hunger and food insecurity. The ten are: Memphis, San Antonio, San Francisco, Washington DC, Des Moines, Boston, Santa Barbara, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, and Norfolk. Memphis, known as “the hunger capital of the US,” had the worst hunger problem of the 25 cities included in the survey. Last year 46% of the city’s requests for emergency food assistance were unmet. The main causes for food insecurity in Memphis have been unemployment, low wages, and poverty. Twenty-six percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. San Francisco, surprisingly, also has one of the country’s most critical hunger problems, partly due to the relatively high cost of living in the city. Last year 37% of the city’s requests for emergency food assistance were declined. The report predicts that in 2015, the need for food assistance in San Francisco “will increase substantially,” while funding for the city’s anti-hunger programs “will decrease substantially.”
The figures in the article indicate that those dependent on emergency food aid are not necessarily unemployed. Many have full-time jubs. The reason they require food aid is simply that their wages are too low. They also receive inadequate benefits and thus must meet health-care costs on their own. This traps them in a vicious cycle by which inadequate diets contribute to poor health, and payments for health care absorb earnings that might otherwise have been spent on better nutrition, thus undermining health.
Another article on Alternet predicts that the problem of hunger and food insecurity in the US will be further exacerbated when one million of the nation’s poorest people will be cut from SNAP by the end of 2016 even if they’re actively pursuing work. In some areas, SNAP will reinstate a three-month limit on benefits for unemployed adults who are not disabled or raising children. These people will lose their benefits even if they are unable to find jobs, unless they are enrolled in a job training program. Many states, however, do not have such programs even for those who seek training. Thus, despite their plight, such people will be turned away from the program.
It is said that the best way to evaluate the social health of a nation is how it treats the least among its citizens. On this criterion, the US has a long way to go to live up to its ideal of “with liberty and justice for all.”