As the result of a CBS documentary in 1968, our nation focused on reducing hunger through a variety of federal programs, including food stamps. By 1979, hunger in the US had been all but eliminated.
Now it’s back with a venegence.
Today, 50 million Americans (1 in 6 of our citizens) rely on charitable food programs. 17 million (1 in 4) American children are struggling with hunger. Indeed, half of American children will need food assistance in their lifetimes. Before last week’s $5 billion cuts, 23 million American households were on food stamps with many people living on $3 or less per day for food.
Hunger is not localized to the inner cities as many believe. It affects every county in America. It’s the direct result of poverty. And, contrary to what some say, people don’t want to be on food assistance. Indeed, they are ashamed to admit that they need help.
In Arizona, hunger is even more rampant than in other states. The 2010 Census showed that 21.2 percent of Arizonans are living in poverty. Almost half (45.7 percent) of the state’s single mothers live in poverty compared to 39.9 percent nationally, directly impacting kids. Only Mississippi has worse poverty. Arizona is tied as the worst state in the U.S. when it comes to child hunger and the 5th worst for overall food insecurity. 1 in 4 children; 1 in 5 adults; and 1 in 7 of the state’s seniors struggle with hunger. A total of 888,100 unduplicated Arizonans received emergency food assistance in 2009!
What may surprise you is that 49% of the households receiving food assistance have someone who is working. The rest are mostly elderly or disabled. When you consider that the minimum wage is $7.80 per hour in Arizona, you begin to understand the problem. At that salary, a full-time worker working 40 hours per week earns just $16,224 a year. Many of the companies paying such low wages are, in effect, being subsidized by taxpayers. A recent study estimated that fast food companies cost taxpayers $7 billion annually in public assistance for their employees. Another study estimated that the average Walmart worker requires $730 in taxpayer-funded health care and $1,222 in other forms of public assistance, resulting in each Walmart store costing taxpayers $900,000 per year.
There are many other reasons for hunger. Despite the demand on social programs, tax revenue has been cut. Loopholes allow corporations and wealthy to pay a lower tax rate than ordinary Americans. And, in Arizona, corporate taxes have been cut every year since 1990. Since just 2005, that has cost the state $86 million in annual revenue. Moreover, Arizona’s corporate tax rate is set to be cut by another 30 percent from 2014-2018 costing the state another $84 million in annual revenue!
The housing crisis and resulting Great Recession cost many people their homes and their jobs. Many of those who have re-entered the workforce have done so at lower salaries and in part-time jobs. A lack of education is yet another cause. For example, in Arizona, 4 of 5 students don’t have a college degree 6 years after graduating high school.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that the poor have no voice in government. For many years, corporations have controlled government through lobbyists. Then Citizens United gave corporations an even bigger voice. The Republican Party speaks for big business. The Democratic Party speaks for the middle class. But no one speaks for poor.
There is also a belief that churches and faith-based charities will take care of the poor and hungry. But charities lack the resources to address the problem. Indeed, the $5 billion cut to food stamps equals all of the money devoted to charitable food shelves combined! And Republicans in the House have voted to cut another $40 billion from food stamps.This will kick 3.8 million people out of the program by 2014, then 3 million more each year after that. In doing so, Republicans have perpetuated numerous myths about the program, most prominently that people who use the program are lazy. That’s why Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) added a work requirement to the farm bill for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Southerland defended his amendment by referencing Genesis, saying, “God created Adam, placed him in the Garden to work it.” Democrat Marcia Fudge (D-OH), countered that the Bible mentions the “poor and hungry over 200 times.”
And Southerland’s belief that food stamps are being abused by the lazy is just one of the myths about SNAP. For example, some believe that they are damaging to our economy by adding to the federal debt. Yet a study by the research firm, Moody’s Economy.com found that every dollar in food stamps creates a ripple effect that contributes $1.73 to our economy.
Some believe that the growth in SNAP is the result of waste and fraud. Yet the recent growth in SNAP is simply the result of the recession. It’s temporary. As the economy recovers, fewer people will qualify for assistance and the program will shrink. As for fraud, according to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) which administers the SNAP program, it is less than one percent. 76 percent of SNAP households include a child, elderly person or disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83 percent of all SNAP benefits.
As for SNAP creating dependence, the average household gets $281 a month and the average individual gets $133 a month. Not many people would turn down a job for so little money. If anyone is dependent, it’s the corporations that pay so little their employees have to rely on taxpayers for help buying food for their families.
Another myth is that SNAP recipients take drugs and use food stamps to purchase cigarettes and alcohol. Yet studies have no significant differences between those on SNAP and the general population. Further, SNAP may be used to buy breads and cereals; fruits and vegetables; meats, fish and poultry; and dairy products. SNAP may not be used to buy beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco, pet foods, soaps, paper products, household supplies, vitamins, medicines, hot foods or food that will be eaten in the store.
Without SNAP, the costs of hunger on society are dramatic. Hunger not only affects overall health and lifespan, it impacts performance at work. Hunger increases problems with pregnancies and infant mortality. And the effects on children are particularly damaging. Hunger results in chronic illness, increased learning disabilities, and more behavioral problems. A 2007 study by Sodexho Foundation and researchers from Harvard University, Brandeis University and Loyola University estimated that the cost of hunger to all Americans was $90 million annually in charities, illness, pyschological dysfunction, and the impacts of less education and lower productivity. The estimated cost to each American is $300 annually. And that was before the Great Recession!
What will it take to end hunger in America? The most important things we can do are to improve the economy, increase the minimum wage and improve public transportation so people don’t have to choose between food and getting to their jobs. We also need to make wholesome foods available to everyone.
In the meantime, here is a link to a directory of emergency food resources in our area: Yavapai Food Council. You can also call or email the Verde Food Council: 928-282-8738 – firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about hunger, check out the following on-line resources:
TakePart.com/Place-At-The-Table (Look for the documentary film “A Place At The Table” with Jeff Bridges.)