I have no heart for somebody who starves his folks. —George W. Bush discussing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and US food donations on CNN (January 2, 2003)
Ellen Spearman lives in a trailer at the edge of Morrill, Nebraska, a tiny dusty town near the Wyoming state line. A few years ago she was a member of the working poor, earning $9.10 an hour at a local energy company. Then she got sick and had four surgeries for what turned out to be a benign facial tumor. New owners took over the company and told her she was a medical liability and could not work full time with benefits. For a while she worked part time without benefits until the company eliminated her position. So the 49-year-old single mother of five, with two teenage boys still at home, now lives on $21,300 a year from Social Security disability, child support and payments from the company’s long-term disability policy she got as a benefit when she was first hired. That’s about $6,000 above the federal poverty level, and too high to qualify for food stamps. But it is not enough to feed her family.
Food is the expendable item in a poor person’s budget. With the need to pay for gasoline, car insurance, trailer rent, clothes, medicine and utilities, and to make payments on a car loan and $10,000 in medical bills, Spearman says three meals a day “take a back seat.” She says she and her family eat a lot of rice with biscuits and gravy. Their diet is more interesting only when a local supermarket sells eight pieces of chicken for $3.99 or chuck roast for $1.49 a pound. “This country doesn’t want to admit there’s poverty,” she says. “We can feed the world but not our own.”
Spearman’s predicament mirrors that of many Americans. While the most severe forms of malnutrition and starvation that prevailed through the 1960s have largely disappeared, some 33 million people live in households that aren’t sure where their next meals are coming from–those whom policy analysts call the food insecure. And with poverty on the rise–the United States experienced the biggest jump in poverty in a decade in 2001, to nearly 12 percent of the population–their ranks are growing. At the end of 2002 the US Conference of Mayors reported a 19 percent increase in the demand for emergency food over the previous year. Food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens and other emergency food providers now serve at least 23 million people a year. “They are America’s dirty little secret,” says Larry Brown, who directs Brandeis University’s Center on Hunger and Poverty. “They are hardworking have-nots who cannot pay the rent, medical bills, and still feed their families.”
Food and hunger are a lens through which we see what America has become: a country indifferent to the basic needs of its citizens, one that forces millions of them to rely on private charity that is inadequate, inefficient and frequently unavailable. As people with low and middle incomes have lost their jobs, their families line up for handouts, something many thought they’d never have to do. Hunger exposes the casualties of the ever-widening income gap between the rich and the rest of the population, and the damage inflicted by a twenty-year campaign waged by right-wing think tanks and conservative politicians to defund and delegitimize government. That campaign, which has succeeded in returning the public’s view of poverty to the Darwinian one that prevailed before the Progressive Era at the turn of the twentieth century, is emblematic of the right’s assault on public programs, which has used the old-fashioned notion of personal failing as the vehicle for accomplishing its political goals. Indeed, few politicians now advocate for the hungry.