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GRAY MATTERS: Hunger and Shame

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.

My mother, may she rest in peace, would have called this a shanda, the Yiddish word for a shame, something you’re not proud of and that you’d rather your neighbor doesn’t find out.

So shame is what I thought about and felt when I read the latest survey by academic researchers for the Meals on Wheels Association of America. It found that in 2008, at the beginning of this Great Recession, nearly six percent of Americans over the age of 60 - more than 2.7 million - suffered from hunger. Not just the lack of enough food, but hunger. In the United States of America in the 21st Century.

But the deeper shame was in the 2009 survey which found that the trend upward was especially discernible between 2001 and 2007 - the years of tax cuts for the wealthy and a couple of pointless wars - when the number of older people (especially women) experiencing hunger rose by 700,000 to upwards of 3 million.

Now, as a result of the recession, when many programs for the aged and poor were reduced, partly to pay for those tax cuts, that figure has reached to over 3 million and with unemployment more than 10 percent, the figure is still climbing.

The highest concentration of hunger risk among older people are in those states with low or no income taxes and fewer social insurance programs: Mississippi, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina and Oklahoma. These states, most of them conservative, also have higher concentration people with only a high school education, plus a higher number of blacks and Hispanics and older people living in poverty. The south remains the most ignorant and badly-led part of the country.

More definitive studies of hunger in the U.S. are published yearly by the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture. But these studies refer to the problem as “food insecurity,” a phrase begun during the Reagan administration which named “ketchup” as a food and denied there was hunger in the U.S.

Nevertheless food insecurity means not knowing where or when you’re getting your next meal.

In its latest study, noted on an inside page of The New York Times last November, the number of Americans who lived in households that lacked access to adequate food rose to nearly 50 million, the highest level since the government began tracking food insecurity 14 years ago.

Thus at some time during the year, 50 million Americans, including 17 million infants and children and more than 5 million older people went hungry.

According to the Times, about a third of 506,000 households in which children and older adults faced hunger, they skipped meals, cut portions or tried to make do with food stamps. Now 36 million people have applied for food stamps, a 40 percent increase over two years ago. But the benefit is only $133 a month, not very generous for the richest debtor nation on earth.

More than 6.7 million Americans who are described as having “low food security” regularly lack sufficient food to eat. Nearly all reported that the food did not last a month.

These dismal facts have not made much of a dent in the news, for hunger in the U.S. - a huge story 50 years ago when the nation began a war on poverty – has now become a silent epidemic. But the foreign press, representing nations where hunger is unknown, has made much of America’s troubles.

The British Guardian’s headline on November 17 was, “Record Numbers Go Hungry in The U.S.” Another Agriculture Department global study of food security found that percentage of households in Canada classified as “food insecure” was 7 percent compared to 12.6 percent in the U.S., and that was before the recession.

As you might expect, Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation told the Times:

“Very few of these people are hungry. When they lose jobs, they constrain the kind of food they buy. This is regrettable, but it’s a far cry from a hunger crisis.”

James Weill, whose department did the study, replied,

“Many people are outright hungry, skipping meals. Others say they have enough to eat but only because they’re going to food pantries or using food stamps. We describe it as ‘households struggling with hunger.’”

Perhaps we should take comfort in the Agriculture Department’s overview of food security assessment which found that while there is no such hunger problem in most other industrialized nations with strong social welfare programs, the problem of food insecurity is far worse in the developing world than in America.

Sliding onto a related subject, the recession and the holes it has torn in retirement savings mean the percentage of people who expect that Social Security will be their major source of income has risen from 27 percent to 34 percent. That’s the highest percentage since 2001, according to a Gallup survey. That translates to 54 percent of retirees who said in 2008 that they expected Social Security to be their major source of income.

This comes at a time when older Americans were frightened by what seemed scary news – that for the first time, this year and next and maybe a couple more years, Social Security will be paying out more money that it will take in in payroll taxes. The reason is obvious: high unemployment means millions of jobless workers are not paying payroll taxes. But despite that frightening news, as economist Dean Baker points out, what SS will pay out will be a minuscule portion of the $2.5 trillion it holds in government bonds.

Some skeptical readers insist these bonds (in a vault in West Virginia ) are just so many IOUs. Well, so are your personal checks and the treasury bonds you hold. But the SS bonds, which produce about $700 million a year in interest for the Social Security trust fund, are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. It would help SS if the law permitted the agency to get a higher rate of interest, or if Social Security could remove the current cap ($106,000) on taxable earnings.

But Social Security, with its huge trust fund, is a tempting target for people like billionaire Pete Peterson and other deficit hawks who would love to privatize the system and make all that money available to Wall Street. And the shortfalls for the next years has given them an excuse to focus on Social Security, which is self-sustaining and contributes nothing to the deficit.

For example, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Social Security trust fund would show a deficit in 2010. “This is not true,” said Baker, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

“The Social Security trust fund is projected to show a surplus of close to $100 billion in 2010...The Journal likely forgot to include interest on the bonds held by the trust fund.”

I doubt that the Journal forgot. The Journal did not see the Wall Street crash coming but would now take advantage of this temporary problem to turn the social insurance on which millions depend over to those who caused the problem. Shame.

Write to saulfriedman@comcast.net


Saul, thank you for helping me understand the issues with Social Security. We hear and read so many things. Since I live in Atlanta, I was saddened to be reminded about how poorly we do in the South with social programs. I'm leaving right now to go to the Atlanta Food Bank site to make a donation.

Well-timed, Saul. Today is our USPS's food drive. I have placed a bag of non-perishable foods at our communal mailbox site.

As to "Others say they have enough to eat but only because they’re going to food pantries or using food stamps." Those "others" should not be included as hungry. Food is being supplied - by the best possible means, it seems to me.

On Social Security: "It would help SS if the law permitted the agency to get a higher rate of interest"

Many of us have argued against privatization because of the associated risk. Low risk = low rate of return.

Thank you, Saul. It reminds me to be grateful that I have a job, and to give more. But there should be no cap on earnings taxed for social security.

It certainly puts things in perspective to read that 3 million Americans went hungry at the same time that the wealthiest 1% got a tax cut.

The richest nation in the world being so stingy with social programs tells the world where our priorities are. Shanda indeed!

According to Wikipedia, the WSJ is owned by Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News. Murdoch made his fortune in tabloid journalism. So I, too, doubt that the Journal forgot to include the interest earned on the SS bonds in its report. It's a sad day when it's necessary to fact check such a [formerly] respected newspaper. Just my opinion.

Our church has a barrel out for food donations all the time and we also support "Meals on Wheels." So this is not new news but it's sad all the same. The part about the tax cuts to the wealthy while millions go hungry just makes me mutter un-Christian words under my breath.

Many of the rich have no idea about what it's like on the other other side of the divide. They say we need them. I don't know.

I know that the men painting our house aren't getting quite enough to eat, so I always have snacks and drinks for them in the downstairs fridge. They would be much too proud to use food stamps or other charity services. And they are new to this kind of marginality, since our economy has put them into this bind. They earned plenty of money in the past as skilled specialty carpenters and furniture restorers, and now all the jobs for rich people with fancy second homes that they depended on for their income have cut back, sold out, disappeared. So the best work they can get now is house painting. You can imagine what kind of a job they're doing. All hand work.
Furthermore, the cost of food is suddenly soaring here. I could not believe the prices last time I went to the supermarket.
So it's not just the south, and it's not just the elderly.
Just to put the fillip on it, neither of them have health insurance; they fall into that gap that should have been covered by the health bill. I hope nothing happens to them before they become eligible for insurance.

I hope the syntax police won't cite me for the mistakes in the above posting.

Saul, this article is incredibly informative. I can not belive that the united states has allowed itself to get to the tipping point we are currently at with welfare, medicare, and social security all doing insufficient jobs. I am happy to hear that social security will be reporting a 100 billion dollar surplus but all the rumors I hear about baby boomers retiring have me woried about the future when there are twice as many people retired then there currently are.

It is just a tragic fact like E. Scrooge, before his change in the Christmas Carol - it would be good to reduce the surplus population...maybe that is the repressed thinking...how morbid I have become; Thank you Saul for your erudition.

sad commentary on life

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