The United States of America: The Land of the Rich and the Hungry

The United States of America – the home of the free and the brave, the land the opportunity – statements like these are what draw the 38,517,234 foreigners that make up the US immigrant population. Many people leave their home countries in search of a better life for themselves and for their families and make the life changing decision to move to a place that speaks a language they might not even understand. People leave behind loved ones and prized possessions, all in the quest for the American Dream. Beneath the shiny façade and old fashioned values of America, there lies a not so pretty truth. America has its own bunch of problems. America also has poor people; America also has hunger people and homeless people and people who feel they have no future. How can it be possible that in world’s richest country there are people scrounging for food in garbage cans? Evidence would suggest that hunger thrives even in America due to the major economic recession, lack of government funding for food programs and the rising number of illegal immigrants in the country.

Beginning in late 2007, there was no doubt that the United States was falling head first into a recession.  There was turmoil simmering in the housing, credit and financial markets. Unemployment reached 10.6 million. “Personal bankruptcies filed in the federal courts totaled 934,009 from June 2007 to June 2008, up more than 28 percent from the 727,167 petitions filed in the same period a year earlier, according to the latest figures from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts,” (Dickler, “Personal bankruptcies on the rise”) . Foreclosures on homes were past the 3 million mark, a startling and dire statistic. In 2008, banks had repossessed more than 850,000 properties. That same year Sally Erickson, Portland’s homeless manager stated that the requests from families for emergency shelter had doubled compared to 2007. Living off of a minimum wage and having to support a family, a poor person would have a difficult time buying food if they are having to pay expensive housing, having to pay for healthcare out of pocket, having to pay for childcare and on top of that all the bills and utilities that are the responsibilities of a good citizen. Things were not looking good for America. Yet, people were still flocking to America and going straight into the lower class of society, into poverty. In the midst of all this chaos where was the government? Why was it not responding to the hungry people of its country? Where was President George W. Bush, who said “I have no heart for somebody who starves his folks,” when talking about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and US food donations on CNN in 2003? Sure, the government was not starving its people, like the President implies Kim Jong was, but were we doing any better? The question that remains to be answered is why hasn’t the government done anything to help its people thrive and live outside of the pits of hunger?

The federal government, in the not too distant past, had played a much bigger role in helping feed the hungry. Programs like WIC, which helps feed pregnant women and young children, school breakfasts and lunches, were supported by politicians in the 1970’s. Then came along people like Ronald Reagan and people that were in The Heritage Foundation.  In 1981, the Heritage Foundation laid out a plan “to restrain the food programs”. Some of their proposals passed, resulting in less outreach and advocacy for the hungry people. Reagan focused on the food stamp program and attacked it. He had put a picture in the mind of many Americans: the picture of a person abusing the food programs and abusing the good intentions of good Samaritans. The people accepted this image of the free-loading American and food programs numbers dwindled. Douglas Besharov, the director of Projects on Social and Individual responsibility at the American Enterprise Institute stated that WIC was playing a role in contributing to childhood obesity. The doubt over WIC was increasing, drawing the politicians into making it harder to become eligible. Similarly, the Agriculture Department hopes to make it more difficult to qualify for free and reduced-price school meals because it has found that some of the children in the program are coming from families that aren’t eligible. While making it harder to qualify might weed out the people that shouldn’t be a part of the program, it also alienates those that do qualify. Inevitably it will cause a reduction in participation among eligible children. For many of those children a hot school lunch is the only source of food. The negative image placed on food programs and people enrolled in those programs ultimately led to a drastic drop in federal funding.

Out of the entire federal budget in 2002, less than 2% was spent on food programs. One of the programs that have been hit hard is those that deliver food to the elderly in their homes. These elderly people are confined to their homes by illnesses and old age, with no one to assist them. 20 years ago in New York, a food delivery service was 80% funded by Washington, but now the federal government pays less than 20%. This has led to people to become malnourished. This population in particular uses many medications for a variety of ailments. Medication taken on an empty stomach can cause adverse effects because medication is meant to be taken with food. Sadly, some of the elderly die waiting for home delivered meals that never come or arrive too late.

Another major food program that has been getting more and more difficult for people to use is food stamps. After Reagan planted the seed of doubt into the minds of the Americans, the food stamp program, which dates back to 1939, became increasingly difficult. Never in its history has food stamps been used by all of the people that are eligible. Why could that be? Eligible people are not encouraged to enroll in food stamps because of the excessive verification required, more and more frequent case worker visits, the requirement of reapplying in person and even going so far as taking fingerprints. Even when the unemployment rates were increasing between the years of 2001 – 2003, the enrollment in the food stamp program decreased in New York.

Even if a person is on food stamps, it’s simply not enough to get through the month. Poor families spend anywhere from 50% to 80% on just housing, meaning they have little to nothing to contribute towards buying food. What these people are forced to do, is march to one of the 50,000 food pantries and soup kitchens across the country. So many people are forced to get emergency food boxes, 30% of those people use food stamps, directly pointing to the fact that the food stamps aren’t enough to live on. The food that is in the food boxes are usually damaged products that didn’t sell or too much of it was made or it is past the expiration date. The people don’t get to choose what food they get and most of the food is processed, not fresh. The fact that there is hardly any fresh produce at food banks could possibly be contributing to diet related health problems among the poor. Sadly, even if a food bank were to get fresh produce, often times there isn’t adequate refrigeration for storage. Also a problem is that majority of the volunteers at food banks are older people that can’t carry a substantial load of fresh produce. Essentially what that means is that, even if a person has just finished a meal made from products in a food box and they no longer feel hungry, their body is still starving for proper nutrients. Hunger still remains an issue.

The United States is a capitalist nation and it comes as no surprise that hunger has been turned into a way to get profit. Food banks have become viewed as a business because it creates jobs for people. Among the food bank leaders there are two opposing sides: one which supports and demands that the government find solutions not only for hunger but also poverty and the other side which demands more donations. Ultimately, hunger is just a symptom of a much larger issue which is inadequate income. People of African and Hispanic/Latino heritage make up majority of the poor population. Many of the Hispanic or Latino people that live in poverty are in the United States as illegal immigrants. “The vast majority of undocumented immigrants are from Mexico and Latin America: 60.0 percent (6.7 million) from Mexico, 12.0 percent (1.3 million) from Central America, 5.0 percent (575,000) from South America, and 3.0 percent (350,000) from the Caribbean,” (Batalova, “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States”). These large populations are not able to get job that pay above minimum wage and must accept any job that comes their way. Typically the jobs they take are field labor jobs, which only hire during select seasons in the year. With a job that pays very little, or with no job at all, it is impossible for a person to pay for food for themselves and for the family. They must get what they can at a food bank. Unfortunately, an illegal immigrant has no voice in America. An illegal immigrant cannot stand up and fight for a higher paying job and fight for health care and equal rights. This would only lead to deportation, and no illegal immigrant wants that shame upon their heads. An illegal immigrant must live quietly with hunger as a constant companion.

As I’m warm in my home, sheltered from the cold and having eaten three meals today I can only imagine the gnawing pain of hunger many people are dealing with right now. I think about the 1 in 3 children living in Washington D.C that are malnourished. The one thing that I have found to be certain is that hunger must be stopped. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the Work says that with 6 billion dollars set aside to tackle hunger in America, we could stamp out half of the problem in just 2 years. Not only must more donations, in the form of money or food, be available for immediate assistance, but income must be taken into consideration as well. Increasing the minimum wages in order for living expenses to be covered without leaving people scraping enough money for food is the only solution in moving towards self-sufficiency. The United State is slowly but surely crawling out of the recession. It’s the people’s responsibility, as well as the government’s, to make sure that no one is left behind and that we all move towards a place of financial security. Once that is achieved then America can become what it is meant to be: the land of the free and brave and the land of opportunity.


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