The Return of American Hunger

July 21, 2016

By a handful of indicators—unemployment rates, overall economic growth, even average hourly earnings—the U.S. economy isn’t doing so badly right now.

And yet, when it comes to the number of Americans who go hungry, it’s almost like the recovery never happened. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life,” and in 2006, the year before the housing market stumbled, the USDA estimated that fewer than 10.9 percent of American households were food insecure.

By 2009, that figure had spiked to 14.7 percent. And now? As of 2014, the most recent year on record, 14 percent of all American households are not food secure. That’s approximately 17.4 million homes across the United States, populated with more than 48 million hungry people. By the time the USDA reports its 2016 figures in September 2017, new food-stamp restrictions could make that number higher.

Hunger remains persistent because millions of Americans are still struggling financially as a result of the crash. Post-recession wage growth, though real, has been wildly unequal. A recent analysis from the Economic Policy Institute found that “between 2000 and 2015, wages for the bottom 60 percent of male workers were flat or declined” and that wage gains have been largely concentrated among high earners.

As a result, in one of the richest countries that has ever existed, about 15 percent of the population faces down bare cupboards and empty refrigerators on a routine basis. That fact alone meets any reasonable definition of the word “crisis,” but it is rarely treated like one. In a lot of states, benign neglect is the most that hungry Americans can expect from their government.

What they get instead is usually worse: new restrictions on food-stamp eligibility, in the form of a reimposition of work requirements, mandatory drug testing, and so on.

The cumulative effect of those state-level decisions—combined with recent cuts to the food-stamp program on the federal level—has been a sharp decline in the number of claimants, an effect that far outstrips whatever meager gains have been made in the fight against food insecurity.

Over the course of a single month in the first half of 2016, more than a quarter of a million people dropped out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for the food-stamps system. That was the sharpest month-long fall in SNAP participation in a decade.

The main reason for the decline is some states’ new work requirements, according to Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of government relations at the national food-bank network Feeding America. “Part of it is due to the fact that the economy is recovering, but unfortunately another big part of it is occurring in the states [that] reinstituted that three-month time limit for ABAWDs,” said Davis, using an acronym for “able-bodied adult without dependents.”

Under federal law, ABAWDs can only receive three months’ worth of SNAP benefits every three years before they get cut off. In order to receive any more, they must either find employment or enter a job training program that meets federal requirements. When unemployment is high and job training is scarce, states have the option of waiving those work requirements.

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