The Great Recession has been great for the PR office at the U.S. Department of Labor. The monthly release of unemployment data has been treated with great fanfare since the wheels fell off the global economy in the fall of 2008. The numbers are parsed, questioned, commented on, and later revised. Then we do it all over again a month later.
Yet the related issue of hunger in America has seen nowhere near the same level of media attention. Maybe that’s because the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture only publishes Household Food Security in the United States annually, so the issue isn’t fresh, and a narrative doesn’t develop. But hunger, while down from a 2008 peak, is still a real problem for millions of U.S. families.
The latest report came out last week, just before jobs data failed to meet expectations, spawning countless charts and explainers. The jobs report altered, for a news cycle at least, the narrative of a steadily improving economy, and the hunger report could have added a human dimension to reporters’ articles on job growth. The research suggests that things haven’t improved much when it comes to putting dinner on the table. The number of Americans without enough food in 2013 was around 49 million, or 14.3 percent of the population—virtually unchanged from the year prior.
The numbers, said Joel Berg, executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger, are an indicator that there has been “no meaningful recovery” in the economy. Although the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has seen fewer enrollments recently, Berg said there are other explanations besides an improving economy.
“The real reason SNAP participation is decreasing is that we’re demonizing participation, and conservative states are putting up more barriers,” he said. “We see that reflected in the long lines at food pantries and kitchens. A lot of Americans always expect this Frank Capra–esque Hollywood ending, and what we really see is more poor people suffering.”
Berg said that next year’s USDA report will likely show that food insecurity worsened in 2014 as a result of the $4 billion cut in nutritional assistance that took effect last November, combined with another $8.7 billion chopped from SNAP in the most recent farm bill. Berg predicts that this time next year, the food insecurity report will show “more mass suffering, more hunger, more parents not able to feed their children, and more obesity, ironically.”
Meanwhile, columnist James Bovard of The Wall Street Journal reacted to Wednesday’s numbers with a different premise: that food insecurity is not hunger.
“Some Americans do indeed suffer from hunger, but the federal government has shed little light on the challenges they face,” Bovard wrote. “The National Academy of Sciences urged the USDA in 2006 to develop measurements of individual hunger instead of household ‘food security,’ but the USDA hasn’t done so. More than 40 years after President Nixon declared war on hunger, the federal government still doesn’t care to accurately measure the problem.”
Berg said Bovard and others are thinking about the term too narrowly, and that a lack of quality food can constitute malnutrition as much as a lack of food in general.
“This isn’t North Korea or Somalia; people aren’t starving to death. But they’re not starving to death because of the programs [Bovard] wants to eliminate,” he said, referring to some conservatives’ efforts to slash nutrition programs. “I challenge him to go to a soup kitchen or food pantry and look a hungry mother in the eye and tell her she’s making it up.”
The USDA ERS itself is careful to not conflate food insecurity with hunger; a spokesperson at the service’s press office pointed out that the report does not measure any physiological condition.
I reached out to Bovard for a response to the criticism, and he wrote in an email that “my commentaries in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, USA Today, and elsewhere have often relied on findings of academic research and federal audits, which proved that the programs fail to produce the benefits they promise. It is not my fault that the audits and academic studies show so few nutritional benefits from food stamps.” Nevertheless, it seems clear that taking away a person’s money to buy food would not improve his or her nutritional status.
According to Berg, the solution is “really easy”: Create more jobs paying a living wage, and ensure that families who are unable to work have an adequate safety net. There are, of course, various efforts from both politicians and workers—especially fast-food workers—calling for a raise in the minimum wage, but the safety net continues to be cut. For this, Berg blames both the Republicans, who want to slash programs that help hungry children, and the Democrats, who have not prioritized fighting poverty in several decades.
“Our political system now is evil versus spineless,” he said. “You cannot win an argument you’re not willing to have.”