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At an Arkansas food bank. (AP)

Reporting on the 'hidden' issue of domestic hunger

ASK THIS | February 10, 2005

News organizations should do a far better job of covering the poverty, hunger, and lack of food security experienced year-round by tens of millions of Americans. (First in a series)

By Joel Berg


Q.  Why have hunger and food insecurity (the government classification for people who either go hungry or have unstable access to food) increased nationwide in each of the last four years? 


Q. Why are poverty, hunger, and food insecurity increasing among America’s working families and in suburban areas that were previously famous for their material comfort? 


Q. Why does the United States have levels of poverty, hunger, and food insecurity that dwarf the levels of such problems in any other industrialized Western nation? 


Q. What is the link between social and economic policies enacted by government at the federal, state, and local levels and the increasing poverty, hunger, and food insecurity nationwide? 


Q. How have cuts in government nutrition assistance and anti-poverty programs over the last decade impacted these problems? Would the $1.1 billion in cuts in food stamps benefits over ten years, proposed by President Bush in his Fiscal Year 2006 budget, make these problems worse? 


Q. How has the opposition of President Bush and Congress to raising the minimum wage — which has been stuck at $5.15 an hour since 1997 —  impacted poverty and hunger in America?


Q.  Is there a link between the political disenfranchisement of poor people and the increasing poverty, hunger, and food insecurity? Why are these issues rarely mentioned in presidential or other political campaigns? In the 2004 election, what was the turnout rate in communities with a high level of poverty versus communities with significant wealth?  How often did presidential candidates visit wealthy zip codes (including for fundraisers) versus low-income zip codes? Do low-income, hungry people have prominent roles in national or local anti-hunger organizations?


One of the most under-reported stories of the last decade has been America’s increasing poverty, hunger, and food insecurity (the government classification for people who either go hungry or have unstable access to food).  Even during the boom economy of the late 1990s, the United States had very high levels of these problems compared to other industrialized Western nations. As a result of tougher economic conditions and cutbacks in government social service programs over the last four years, each of these three indicators has increased significantly since 2000. 


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans living below the poverty line rose from 31.6 million in 2000 to 35.9 million in 2003, an increase of almost 14 percent. The federal poverty line is now $15,260 for a family of three, yet many studies indicate that it costs far more than that for most families to get by at a bare subsistence level. If the government's poverty measure were more accurate and up-to-date, far more Americans would be considered impoverished.


According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the number of Americans living in households that suffered from food insecurity rose from 33.2 million in 2000 to 36.2 million in 2003, an increase of 9 percent. The number of hungry children in such households rose from 12.9 million to 13.3 million during that period. And the number of people who lived in households that directly suffered from hunger rose from 8.5 million in 2000 to 9.6 million in 2003, a 13 percent increase.  (Click here for an October, 2004, USDA report on household food security.) 


While daily (often slight) changes in the stock market got steady coverage in the news media during this time period, these massive increases in poverty, hunger, and food insecurity, affecting the very survival of tens of million of Americans, rarely received any coverage at all.


As a direct result of the increasing poverty, hunger, and food insecurity — as well as cutbacks in the social service safety net — America is increasingly relying upon charitable food pantries and soup kitchens to feed low-income Americans. In 2001, according to America’s Second Harvest (the national network of food banks and food rescue organizations that supplies food to such  kitchens and pantries) these agencies collectively fed more than 23 million low-income Americans, including more than five million children and nine million seniors. Under-funded private charities are being asked to handle many responsibilities previously performed by government. For the first time, the number of Americans utilizing private pantries and kitchens surpassed the number of Americans utilizing government food stamps.


The fastest-growing populations at these private agencies are working parents, children, and senior citizens. While the public and the media often use the terms “hungry” and “homeless” interchangeably, a number of studies show that up to 90 percent or more of the people who use kitchens and pantries in the country do have some sort of housing; they simply don’t have enough income to purchase all the food their families need. While inner cities and certain rural areas still have the greatest concentrations of poverty and hunger in America, those problems  have risen rapidly in many suburban areas over the last decade.


As might be expected, the main causes of this growing poverty and hunger are low wages, high levels of unemployment, and cutbacks in social service programs at the federal, state, and local levels. According to USDA, there were an average of 3.6 million fewer people receiving food stamps in 2004 than in 1994. 


President Bush proposes further cuts in his Fiscal Year 2006 budget. He proposes cutting $1.1 billion (over ten years) in food stamp funding by restricting the ability of states to allow families who receive TANF (Temporary Assistance to Need Families)-funded services to be categorically-eligible for food stamps. By cutting food for low-income Americans at the same time he is decreasing state flexibility, it is fair to not only question whether he is being "compassionate," but to question whether such restrictions on states are "conservative."


The Administration and the majority in Congress have also cut funding for the two programs that both help low-income people to obtain fresh fruits and vegetables and help small farmers earn enough income to stay on their land. In fiscal year 2005, there was a $7 million (26 percent) cut in the program that helps women, infants, and children, and a $1.7 million (9 percent) cut in the program the enables senior citizens to obtain produce from farmers’ markets. The  Administration proposed similar budget cuts for Fiscal Year 2006. 


The Administration also proposed eliminating the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Community Food and Nutrition Program, a primary source of funding for state and local anti-hunger organizations.


States and localities are also cutting funding. For instance, in New York State, through his budget proposal and a veto, Gov. George Pataki cut $2 million from the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program in 2004, the primary state program that provides food to soup kitchens and food pantries. He recently proposed the same reduction in his 2005 budget.  In New York City, more than 350,000 fewer people receive food stamps today than 10 years ago, which costs low-income families more than $400 million annually


Additional experts who can be contacted by the press:

Edward M. Cooney, Executive Director, Congressional Hunger Center

202-547-7022 x 14


Ellen Vollinger, Legal Director, Food Research and Action Center

202-986-2200, x3016


Doug O'Brien, Vice President of Public Policy and Research

America’s Second Harvest

(312) 263-2303, ext. 158

Second Harvest Web site
A report on a 2001 survey of more than 32,000 recipients of emergency food aid.

USDA Web site
A chart showing food stamp participation and costs, 1969-2004

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