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American hunger: Are scientists lying?

Posted in the database on Saturday, December 10th, 2005 @ 14:41:11 MST (1254 views)
by Julian Edney    OpEdNews.com  

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I gambled $31.50 on the new USDA report ERS-ERR-11, not sure if I would understand. Government reports are often clogged with asphyxiated prose and gravel-gray pages of footnoted tables. But mercifully “Household Food Security in the United States 2004” is a readable booklet. Its main point is clear: hunger in America is rising.

The basics: the Fed has surveyed 60,000 American families. It found 88.1% to be “food secure” – they don’t worry about getting food. But 11.9% are “food insecure” – sometimes they don’t know if they can afford food, but by doing without medications or delaying the rent they avoid hunger. That category is 13.5 million households. Finally 3.9%, or 4.4 million American households, sometimes go hungry for lack of money.

The statistics also show a 14.7% increase in hunger in one year – as we enter another year of recovery from the recession.

The interior numbers show that the South and the West are hungrier, that Blacks and Hispanics are more vulnerable, that households headed by single women are more vulnerable – and, of course, the poor. (1)

America is the biggest food producer of the world. We ship gargantuan piles of it to hungry foreign countries. Fifty four percent of the world’s exported corn is from the United States. (2)

A separate survey last year in Los Angeles found 2.9 million in California suffer food insecurity or hunger – some 10% of San Fernando Valley folks are at risk of not getting enough to eat, and if compared by race, Blacks are most at risk, then Whites, then Hispanics. Among low-income adults the food risk percentages grow huge, with Latinos leading at 38.2%. The poor always say high rents are the single biggest drain on what money they have; the homeless daily have to choose between a motel room and food. In California, food insecurity has increased 16% over two years. (3) California is the biggest food producing state.

A couple of online experts have called the USDA report stunning.

With the aggregate wealth of the United States you might expect this report to have a media impact like dropping a large rock in a small pond, sending politicians running for their microphones. But it never did.

There is, simply, a national denial. It’s echoed in the daily press. So the newspapers in my city run big, colorful daily sections on food preparation. In general the media is dramatically disinterested in the poor, and dramatically interested in the rich – the same newspapers carry regular sections on real estate which show baronial homes in Bel Air.

It would be nice to know that the Fed is doing something about all those hungry families. Actually the Food Stamp program (also run by the USDA) is a torn safety net. First, as an index of our Government’s concern, the allocation for Food Stamps is 0.0017 of the national budget. The average recipient gets $83 a month.(4 ) Second, the help is not getting through. In California, agencies admit only 45% of people who could use Food Stamps get them, even when they qualify. Consequently, food banks and private charities are besieged. American Second Harvest, an emergency food charity, now reports one in four people in a soup kitchen line is a child. Sometimes the hungry and homeless are turned away.

Not just hunger, but the base of national poverty itself is again broadening, with nearly 37 million Americans in poverty in 2004.(5)

The national obsession with extravagant wealth shows precipitous contrasts in the media. Nine days after the Daily News reported on Los Angeles hunger, the Los Angeles Times ran a colorful front page photo of coach Phil Jackson’s wallpaper-size grin at being signed by the Lakers for a three year contract at $10 million dollars a year. (6)

Obviously you can’t force people to read what disinterests them, but if there was a Richter scale for national yawns, it seems the topic of hunger would stretch in at magnitude 10.

The reason? – There are several. But prime is our confidence our problems will be taken care of – fixed by experts.

Part of the legendary American strut comes from being first as technological problem solvers. We’re a culture of scientific genius, we have astonished the rest of the world by being first in flight, first with a moon walk, with planetary probes, and plagues conquered, and we have Star-Wars armaments. The public likes this; it’s a promise of our kind of humanitarianism that special technology will take care of you. Politicians without ready answers can always point to scientists and smile: these guys. The fix is on the way.

But science only goes so far. It’s helpless at fixing the education crisis: our public schools are turning out divisions of semi-literates each year. Nor labor disputes, juvenile delinquency, wars, child abuse. Science is notorious at local weather forecasts, it can’t predict the stock market, it cannot fix corruption, it cannot prevent the common cold. But to an extent science and politicians have a symbiotic relationship, and scientists join in with the “fix it” charade with politicians because that means more government grant money, ever more “breakthroughs” on the evening news, more prizes, and bigger salaries.

Making inflated claims is routine in the world of sales, where it’s called puffery. But we wouldn’t want to be misled about hunger.

We should never mistake a mask for a face. Science cannot cure poverty. Poverty is a part political, part economic problem. Any fix will require helping the poor, so a real solution is unlikely without a change in Ayn-Rand style morality which makes altruism a vice. Another problem is ideology – including the laissez-faire nonsense that if you let everyone do what they want, everybody’s lot will be improved. Still another block is the belief that public assistance weakens people. It might be prudent for scientists to check with politicians before offering incredible fix-its.

So it’s with interest that I picked up the special issue of the Scientific American (September 2005) with its cover story “Ending Poverty”(7) by Jeffrey Sachs, a UN advisor. Sachs shows how urgent the situation is: one-sixth of our planet’s population is trying to live on less than $1 a day. Compared with the overflowing wealth of other world regions, you might think this unfair. But Sachs is not writing morality or values; I combed his writing, and nowhere in the article is the word justice. Sachs is dedicated to science and his prose is saturated with technical points, graphs and statistics. His proposals for ending poverty are mechanical. He thinks most of the world’s extreme poverty can be abolished by 2015 if rich nations deliver new technology and pony up (his term) money.

Now it turns out we’re already donating $2 - 4 Billion a year to sub Saharan Africa alone (the hardest hit region). But little of that money gets to the actual victims. Much of the donations winds up in the pockets of consultants, or gets diverted by corruption. (Apparently if you let everybody do what they want, some people steal.) So Sachs says it’s going to take more money – at the rate of $160 Billion a year, and more transparent local governance.

Is this a scientific solution? Or is this the familiar cycle of free market capitalism creating plunging inequalities, then finding a new way to redistribute the wealth?

Hunger is painful, sometimes agonizing. It does not strengthen character. It is demoralizing, dispiriting and disorienting; the victim develops misshapen ideas, hopes and fears. It is a disaster. It festers in official misdirection and political disinterest. And it is encouraged by exploitation and greed.
Technology is promising what it can’t deliver. A politician’s promise is not to be taken seriously because it is like a rainbow, it has no back, no weight. But we trust our scientists. This is one place we don’t want to grow credibility gaps.

Sachs is promoting his plans for the abolition of chronic hunger in the rest of the world in ten years. Meanwhile, in the most technological, scientific, transparent and wealthy country in the world, the United States, by our own statistics, homelessness is spreading, and poverty is mounting year to year. And hunger is growing like gangbusters.


1. Nord, M., Andrtews, M., Carlson, S. Household Food Security in the United States,
2004. United States Department of Agriculture report ERS-ERR-11, October 2005.
2. New York Times Almanac 2004. NY: Peguin Reference, 2003. Section: US
Agriculture.p. 304
3. Bartholemew, D. “Hungry in the Valley: 10% of area’s population at risk of not
getting enough to eat.” Los Angeles Daily News, 7 June 2005, p. 1. This article
reports on the Center for Health Policy Research study conducted by UCLA released
in 2005, and other sources.
4. U.S. Food assistance (domestic). The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2000.
Mawah, NJ. Primedia Reference Inc, 2000.
5. Havemann, J., and Alonso-Valdevar, R. “US poverty rate rises again in 2004.” Los
Angeles Times 31 August 2005 p. A 13. This article reports some recent US Census
Bureau statistics, and other sources.
6. Bresnahan, M. “Lakers turn to hire power.” Los Angeles Times 15 June 2005 p. A1.
7. Sachs, J.D. “Can extreme poverty be eliminated?” Scientific American, 2005, 293,
56-65.(Special issue, September).

Author: Julian Edney teaches college in Los Angeles. His book Greed: A treatise expands on these themes. He can be contacted through his website.

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