The United States remains one of the richest countries in the world, but many Americans go to bed hungry at night. Local agencies that assist low-income people have seen significant increases in requests for food. At the Father McKenna Center at St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C., for instance, a staff member, Virginia Jenkins, spoke to America of an African-American mother who “comes in every 15 days for food for herself and her five children. We give her enough to finish out the month—otherwise she would go hungry.” This mother is just one of the increasing number of men, women and children who visit the center in search of food as a stopgap against hunger. The fact that the church is within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol reflects the federal government’s inability to cope with the rising tide of hunger nationwide. Food insecurity (uncertain access to adequate food) has become an increasingly serious problem as the recession continues. Black and Hispanic households experience food insecurity at far higher rates than white ones. Some 50 million people currently live in food-insecure households.
Sadly, the situation is likely to get worse rather than better. In late July the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, attached an amendment to a job and education bill that would increase federal matching funds to help states cover Medicaid expenses and teachers’ salaries to prevent more teacher layoffs. But funding cuts that must be made elsewhere to finance this (almost $12 billion) would include reductions in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program that provides food stamps. Food stamp enrollment has grown rapidly during the recession, and enrollment is at an all-time high, with over 40 million recipients—a 50-percent increase since the economic downturn began. The media periodically carry stories of impoverished men and women who, along with their children, depend on food stamps from month to month as their only source of income. In Lee City, Fla., for example, 15,000 people reported earlier this year that they had no income at all apart from their food stamps.
But now, because of the cuts, a family of four can expect their food stamp benefits to drop by $59 a month. Anti-hunger advocates who strongly oppose the cuts note that this would mean returning benefits to lower levels at a time when many households already run out of food by the third or fourth week of the month. Advocates also point out that the cuts could increase obesity by making it more difficult for families to buy healthful foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. At a time when the unemployment rate, now around 10 percent, is predicted to remain high through 2013, Senator Reid’s amendment is indeed what Representative Rosa de Lauro of Connecticut called a “bitter pill.” Cutting back on one necessity to pay for another is a cruel tax on some of America’s most vulnerable people.
Growing food insecurity became evident last December, when the U.S. Conference of Mayors issued its status report on hunger and homelessness. The report found that the number of requests for emergency food assistance increased by 26 percent the preceding year, the largest yearly average increase ever in the cities surveyed. Half the cities reported that the demand jumped by 30 percent. Not surprisingly, unemployment was cited by 92 percent of the reporting agencies as the primary cause of this increase, followed by housing costs. Six cities reported that even middle class families who used to donate to food pantries are now seeking assistance for themselves. This circumstance, as the survey put it, was one of the elements that has caused new challenges for food pantries, not least because middle-class families in need of assistance are “unfamiliar with accessing social services.”
Because of these increased demands in both pantries and soup kitchens, food assistance agencies, according to three-quarters of the respondents in the survey, have had to cut back on what they can offer. Philadelphia, for instance, reported a 45-percent unmet need because of cutbacks food pantries were forced to make in the amount each client was allowed to receive regularly.
Families should not have to cut back on one necessity to pay for another, like having to choose between food and medical care. Food stamps, one of the key elements of the safety net for poor American families, are too important a lifeline for families already weighed down by the recession. Jim Weill, president of the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center, has said that it would be “an outrage to fund even the best of programs by taking money away from the neediest people in the country, and we’re going to oppose it.” So should Congress.