Elders’ Unique Economic Difficulties
Happy Thanksgiving Day 2008

Reflections: Hunger

[EDITORIAL NOTE: I am pleased and proud to announce today that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Nieman Fellow, Saul Friedman joins Time Goes By as a regular contributor. In his new, twice-monthly Reflections column, Saul will - well, reflect upon news, politics and social issues from his personal perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation.

In his long career, Saul covered some of the most crucial news stories of the 20th century which you can read about in his bio here. For the past dozen years, he has written the Gray Matters column at Newsday, which appears every Saturday. I know you will welcome him to our Time Goes By community.

Category_bug_reflections I remember the precise moment I decided that, after ten years, I no longer wanted to cover the White House. The elder Bush was president and I waited for the noon briefing, ready to get my teeth into a good story.

The chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers was to boast of another month of growth, but that morning the Census Bureau had reported a rise in the number of people living in poverty. And I was ready to ask how come, and make a decent story about the contradiction and his answer. But I never got the chance.

The press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, announced the president would fly to Oakland, California, to inspect earthquake damage and return the same day. The TV reporters and crews went nuts, making arrangements for what was to be nothing more than a photo op. I never got a chance to ask my question and tell my readers why poverty grows amidst the plenty. Soon after I left the White House beat to cover substance–in foreign affairs.

Things have not changed. I checked and no one among the White House press has bothered to ask about a new report and why hunger still haunts this promised land. But then America has become so accustomed to doublespeak, that we even have a euphemism for hunger. So today a president would not say that millions in the nation are “ill-fed,” he or she would say they are “food insecure.” That’s government-speak for a national shame.

In the richest country on earth, where we’re spending $10 billion a month in Iraq, and $700 billion to rescue banks and brokers, more than 13 million Americans, including 730,000 older people and 700,000 children, struggled with hunger during 2007. And that was before this recession-cum-depression hit.

It’s bad enough that close to three-quarters of a million people over 65, many of whom live alone, have gone hungry during 2007. But even worse, at least that many of our grandchildren and millions of their parents, some of them our kids, suffer from not having enough to eat.

If you didn’t read much about this in the press, I’m not surprised. It was too busy playing who’s gonna be in the Obama cabinet guessing games. But the information was easily available and understandable in the Department of Agriculture’s annual report on food security.

Technically, the report said, “food security and insecurity...are based on respondent perceptions of whether the household was able to obtain enough food to meet their needs.”

The word hunger is sparingly used, because the Bush administration didn’t like it. As the report acknowledges in a footnote,

“…prior to 2006, households with low food security were described as ‘food insecure without hunger’ and households with very low food insecurity were described as ‘food insecure with hunger.’”

Now the word “hunger” has been removed and the categories are simply “low food security,” and “very low food security.” But it’s hunger by any other name, the awful, empty feeling in a household when a mother or father cannot give the children or the old people anything to eat.

As with any government report, it begins with the good news - about 89 percent of American households were “food secure” during 2007, meaning that all these household members “had access at all times to enough food for an active healthy life.” That’s not asking for much.

But is 89 percent such a big deal for this gilded age? That other 11 percent amounted to 13 million households that were

“…food insecure at some time during the year. That is, they were, at times uncertain of having or unable to acquire enough food for all household members because they had insufficient money...for food.”

Thus, of the 117 million households surveyed, more than 8 million reported “low food security,” and 5 million reported “very low food security,” which means one or more household members were not getting enough to eat - going hungry - because they could not afford enough food. And in these households there were 691,000 children “with very low food security,” that is, going hungry.

The report’s authors surveyed these families. The report said that 98 percent of these households worried that their food would run out before they had money to buy more. Ninety-six percent reported skipping meals. Two-thirds reported they had been hungry but could not afford to buy more food.

One more revealing statistic: Hunger, or food insecurity, was in general decline during the late 1990s, when 10.5 million households were reported to be food insecure. There has been a steady increase since 2002, when the food secure households numbered 12.5 million, to more than 13 million in 2007. And the number of our children and grandchildren living with hunger, nearly 700,000, has grown by 50 percent since 1998.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Gloria considers slowing down in a world where speed is king. Her story: Walk the Walk and Talk the Talk - Slowly.]


It is wonderful to see Dr. Friedman writing here. Welcome indeed to Ronni's little community.

I want to throw in some anecdotal "data" about this "food insecurity" plague that we tolerate in this country. I have two friends who undoubtedly would fit in the study's model as "food insecure."

Both are adult persons, midlife persons, who because of illness and injury have landed on society's inadequate "safety net." They unable to work and get a little SSDI (Social Security Disability which is NOT age tested) or Ryan White (AIDS) money, some state assistance, and little else. As a society we have cut these programs to the bone because we refuse to tax people who have more than enough. These two are more and more squeezed.

One pays about 85 percent of her check for housing -- and cobbles together the rest of "living" through various food programs and the generosity of friends. The other, whose AIDS condition is complicated by additional maladies, is continually prescribed necessary medicines -- and cannot fill the prescriptions because the drugs in question are not covered by the tissue of programs that fund his AIDS drugs. Eating is barely on his radar -- he subsists on canned soup from drug stores.

Now, in theory, both these people could and to some extent do, get the calories to sustain life through various charitable food programs. There's a whole industry of nonprofit food provision. Anyone interested should look at Janet Poppendieck's Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement. This is not an take down -- it is deeply supportive of feeding people, but eye-opening about how we do and don't do it.

I would hope that the current economic crash will remind of us our obligations to those who were unlucky AND that we'll be more willing to use government to organize assistance. We've become a miserly lot when it comes to using the only institution big enough and neutral enough to do the job well.

Yes - why are there still hungry people in this country, and why is homelessness on the rise? What is it about the human psyche that enables somebody in a limosine to drive by a group of homeless people - including children and the elderly - sheltering themselves under a highway overpass, and subsequently spend a million dollars on a birthday party island "getaway" or forget how many houses they own, and complain that they shouldn't be taxed in proportion to what they earn or hold in assets? How can our representatives in government support legislation in favor of LOBBYISTS while ignoring the very real problems that face the non-wealthy of this country? After a long career in social services, I find myself asking why we STILL have homeless, hungry, undereducated and underserved people in this country, but up until this financial crisis struck Wall Street, very few of us batted an eye at the salaries, benefits, perks and bonuses that big corporations gave their executives. NOBODY is going to tell me that what they do comes even close to being worth what they are paid. And these grotesquely inflated salaries & benefit packages are all paid for by us - by the consumers - who grossly overpay for products and services in order to support the lifestyles of those at the top. It's time to consign Ayn Rand's books to the bargain aisles, and start infusing a little humanity into our business practices - and a little more responsibility to society at large. Sorry for venting...

Welcome! I'm delighted to see you here.

Can you explain why the mainstream media does a fairly poor job of reporting stories like this? I check in with Poynter.com most mornings, where a few lonely souls comment to say that the journalism crisis is a crisis of content, not medium. It's a notion that I'm coming to agree with.

In any event, I enjoyed reading this column: interesting and well-written. Maybe another time, you could tell us why you think children's hunger is more important than old people's. You wrote, "But *even worse*, [emphasis mine] at least that many of our grandchildren and millions of their parents, some of them our kids, suffer from not having enough to eat."

(That's me wearing my provacateur's hat ;)

I first started to wear that hat during the six years my mother was in a nursing home. Everybody *loves* kids; nobody wants to be reminded of these drooling, moaning vegetables with eyes. I watched them go hungry day after day because there weren't enough staff with enough time to feed those who could no longer feed themselves.

Mr. Friedman, I'm so glad you'll be adding your expertise to Ronni's already excellent TGB blog. Your post today is particularly timely, not just because of the food showcasing holiday coming up, but the consumer-driven one that will end a year when lots of people who never thought they'd find themselves in food lines and now do even though they've worked all their lives. They're asking themselves, "how did I get here?" There are far too many of them for America to boast of being the best country in the world. And after eight long years under the current administration, there are far too many on the other end of the spectrum as well. The great divide! I'm still mad as hell about those three bank executives who all flew separately in private corporate jets to beg for a bailout for the auto industry. How much money, how many houses, how many yachts, how much bonus will be enough? I'd like to see them donate some of those exorbitant bonuses they've earned through the years to the charities that struggle to feed people no longer able to feed their families adequately even though they work full time and have all their lives. When, or more importantly, how did America get so far off track like this?

Welcome, Saul. "Time Goes By" is my first must read of the day, after the NYT and our local paper.
Your voice will be a fine addition to this excellent blog.

The national TV news, including cable, has digenerated into about 6 minutes of real news and the rest news magazine fluff. It is as if the media is fraid to tell us the truth

Thank you Mr. Friedman for posting here.

Now my rant.

I'm just blown away by the media still calling this a recession.

Where have they been during the last 6 months? Oh yeah, covering the election.

Well, that's done now.

We are really in a mess; I hope Obama can somehow get us out of this.

I happen to be employed right now, even though I'm 60. But not in a recession/depression proof job. My company (10 of us) are OK now as we have a couple of government jobs, but I haven't seen any RFPs cross my desk lately.

I feel pretty certain that I will lose my job about 6 months from now or take a major pay cut. (hopefully it will be the pay cut.)

I have no idea what I will do then. I have nobody to fall back on and yes, I am scared.

I'll be in that food line, wondering what happened.

It's really time to restructure how we deal with this food problem and all the other problems that face us now.

Thank you very much for posting here. I will be looking forward to your reflections, as Ronni put it. This is a great source of thought and opinion from all of you who publish here.

"...nobody wants to be reminded of these drooling, moaning vegetables with eyes." per Mary Jamison

Writing completely outside my field of expertise (aircraft structures), I would posit that there is evolutionary value in finding young children more attractive than old adults. The species cannot survive unless it protects its children. Even though (so I have read) societies do better when older adults are present, the presence of the older adults bespeaks good "economic" times of the society. The first to be cut from the society in times of dire need are the old people who have already made most of their contribution to survival of the species.

to cop car...I'm sure you're right; I'm sure protecting the kids can be explained by the single evolutionary drive to pass on the genes. (All those dandelion seeds!)
I remain, however, stubbornly a humanist; I think it's right for human beings to protect the weak.
And, I regretted calling them vegetables the morning after I wrote that post. The most afflicted residents were so very clearly human and needy, whether that neediness expressed itself as affection, anger, or sorrow.

I'll look forward to your regular contributions here and want to add my "welcome."

I'm furious that Citibank received such a loan of "my" (taxpayers) money without being required to reimburse "me" a much more hefty interest rate than what I've read was the rate. Taxpayers should be enraged and bombarding this current government to increase that interest rate charged any group we loan dollars from our Treasury including from that 700 billion dollar "bailout" and any subsequent loans.

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