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Report: 18 Million Americans Cannot Find Enough Food

Most political speeches are pitched directly at the broad segment of the population that considers themselves middle class. The speeches over the last two weeks at the RNC and DNC have broadly fit along these lines, with the glaring and important exception of Bill Clinton talking cogently about Medicaid, a huge fault line in this election. But even the appeal of Medicaid has to do with middle class families burdened by a sick parent in need of constant care. 40% of Medicaid funds pay for nursing care for dual eligible seniors, and because Medicare generally doesn’t provide that, it has become a lifeline for people who otherwise couldn’t afford care for their parents.

That’s undeniably important, and the Medicaid fight, because of what Medicaid does, is a rare instance where the concerns of the poor get an airing. It really doesn’t happen elsewhere in the public sphere, for the most part. Consider that on the 2nd night of the DNC a report came out showing that almost 18 million households are struggling to feed themselves in this country.

Almost 18 million American homes struggled to find enough to eat in 2011, including 3.9 million homes with children, or 10 percent of all families with children, according to numbers released on Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture […]

The survey tracked families who had some issues with finding enough food, dubbed “food insecure,” and those deemed “very very food insecure,” who lacked basic nutrition at some point during the year. The latter category includes some 6.8 million households nationwide in which adults skipped meals, couldn’t afford balanced meals, and worried about having enough money to buy food several months out of the year.

In all, the “food insecure” represented 5.7 percent of American households. It’s not much of a change compared with 2010, but it’s 2 percent more—thousands of people more—since 1998.

And this would be far worse if 46 million Americans weren’t in the food stamp program. But instead of hearing about the moral crime of food insecurity in the richest country in the world, we hear more about how the President did not cut the requirement that forces single mothers in poverty to go to work (as if there is this abundance of jobs they can access right now).

As Marcy Wheeler notes, the closest we get to hearing about food in this convention is when the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talks about the bounties of turning corn into fuel. Remember, his USDA put out the report showing the 18 million Americans who have trouble finding food. Here’s Marcy:

I learned yesterday that if I were one of these 17.9 million people I’d be sunk. Rather than watch the early speeches last night (coincidentally, I came home just in time to see Vilsack), I attended a local poverty simulation as part of Hunger Action Week. We broke up into “families” and tried to get through a month making ends meet without enough money to do so; I was the single mother of 3 kids, aged 9 to 17, whose ex-husband had recently lost his job and stopped paying child support.

I found I immediately went into panic mode just figuring out how to pay for transportation to start negotiating the system (it was one thing that added up but wasn’t an obvious budget item). When I was “at work” (a part time minimum wage job at a hospital) all I could think of was dashing to the multiple agencies that might help me make ends meet after work. My “nights,” too, were spent trying to game out how I would accomplish all I needed to the next day to put food on the table. I spent a lot of time waiting in lines. It took me two weeks to figure out how the system worked, at which point I was already behind on utilities and my mortgage. And the kids wanted to help so badly they started listening to the local drug dealer offering to pay them for dropping off packages; since I wasn’t home I couldn’t dissuade them […] I like to think of myself as a competent person, but it turns out I’m utterly incompetent at negotiating the very difficult task of being poor.

Honestly, they don’t make these social insurance systems entirely easy. And that holds down costs, of course.

The Clintonian response to this would be that a rising tide lifts all boats. Grow the economy and you reduce poverty. That’s how it worked in the 1990s. And that’s true to an extent. But the moral crime of rampant hunger, along with rampant inequality (which skyrocketed in the 1990s, by the way), shouldn’t be predicated on what kind of economy we have. There’s no time where it’s “appropriate” for mass hunger. And it won’t be solved by a couple hundred thousand more jobs here and there. It’s a by-product of a broken, rigged system. It’s not enough to give 18 million hungry Americans “opportunity.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen