Record: 49 Million Hungry in America

graph of hunger in America

The USDA has released its data for hunger in the United States, and the numbers aren’t good.

In 2007, 36 million people were classified ‘food insecure’. In 2008, the figure was 49 million – an increase of 13 million.

Children were badly affected, though older children took the hit if they had younger siblings. Those in the front lines were, of course, women. The graph shows the differences in US hunger between 2007 and 2008: single mothers and women living alone were worst hit.

It’s no accident that women are hit harder than men. Food stamps and similar social services just aren’t enough to feed a family. When women are paid less than men for the same work, why should we be surprised at the differences in hunger?

The responses from government are mixed. Although sensible in the press release written for him by the USDA, Secretary for Agriculture Tom Vilsack showed his real pedigree in a briefing to reporters, quoted by The Washington Post where he offered that

“These numbers are a wake-up call . . . for us to get very serious about food security and hunger, about nutrition and food safety in this country.”

What have nutrition and food safety got to do with people going hungry? Very little, except that if you’re going to patch up the worst signs of hunger, you probably want what little food poor people get to be more nutritious than what industrial agriculture is normally ready to provide. But injecting flour with vitamins doesn’t get you very far in tackling the root causes of this hunger – poverty.

Then again, Vilsack doesn’t come from a background of worrying about the hungry as much as we worries about what producers want. It’s not surprising that he went off-message when, it appears, he has never really grasped what drives hunger in the United States. And so long as the USDA remains a producer-driven organisation, neither he nor the people who follow him are likely to understand.

Of course, at heart, this is a bipartisan issue. The USDA is largely a plaything of agribusiness, and is increasingly so. Neither Republican nor Democrat are likely to change it. Meanwhile, the root cause of hunger remains unaddressed, and the best mechanisms for addressing it are allowed to wither.

While the White House trumpets its efforts to drive recovery, and hence jobs and wages, the fact remains that it was a Democratic president driven by a Republican Congress who dismantled the welfare system that most effectively would have prevented this catastrophe.

A plague, then, on both their houses.