41 Million Americans Are Food Insecure


Every year for the past two decades, the US Department of Agriculture has released a report on hunger and food insecurity in the United States. You may have read about these in the past. Prior reports have all received coverage, particularly when the news was positive and people could feel good about the progress we were making in feeding folks in need.

But this year’s report—released on September 6 and filled with worrisome trends—has been met with silence. I have not been able to find a single mention of it in the mainstream media: not one national television news program, major newspaper, or national radio show. NPR and the Associated Press have always reported on it in the past, according to Joel Berg, the CEO of Hunger Free America, but both ignored it this year.

This omission is partly a product of our current news overload, the result of having a psychopath president with a genius for generating headlines. Media organizations have invested heavily in covering Trump’s antics, and there is only so much money and space available for everything else, especially the kind of news that does not bring in advertising (unlike, say, celebrity gossip or sports). But Trump’s circus-barker talents serve not only his intended purpose—to keep the attention of the world on his buffoonish behavior—but to steer our eyes away from how he and his minions are undermining virtually everything worthwhile about the US government. Trump overwhelms the news, helping his own class of robber-baron cronies as they quietly rape the earth, pollute our shared natural resources, and seek to destroy what remains of our personal freedoms and democratic norms. And if you take a look at what’s going on in the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and nearly anywhere else in the executive branch, you can see the success of this system.

The news on hunger is bad, but it’s all the more shocking when you consider that, during the most recent year covered in the USDA report, the Dow Jones industrial average rose by 13 percent, and the collective net worth of the 400 wealthiest Americans, according to Forbes, increased to 
$2.4 trillion. At the same time, the number of Americans classified as “food insecure” remained 
5 million higher than in 2007, before the recession. That number—41 million Americans—is larger than the combined populations of Texas, Michigan, and Maine. Candidate Barack Obama pledged to end child hunger in the United States back in 2008. But that went about as well as the plan to close Gitmo. After Obama’s two terms, we still have nearly 13 million food-insecure children.

Family food insecurity in rural America (15 percent) exceeds that in cities (14.2 percent) and the suburbs (9.5 percent). Trump supporters who believed his crap about the hellish conditions of America’s “inner cities” will be disproportionately harmed should the Republican Congress succeed in enacting its proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The allegations of massive fraud in the food-stamp program have been a hobbyhorse for Republicans for as long as SNAP has existed. Naturally, Trump lied during the campaign about the number of Americans covered by the program as well as its potential for abuse. He argued that the number had been rising during Obama’s presidency when, in fact, it had declined over most of Obama’s second term. Trump’s budget calls for a roughly 25 percent, or $191 billion, cut in the program over the next decade. For Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Mick Mulvaney, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget director, the reduction in food assistance is a convenient way to open the door for tax giveaways to their multimillionaire and billionaire overlords. But Trump’s own secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, disagrees. Referring to SNAP, he said recently, “You don’t try to fix things that aren’t broken.”

Since this is a right-wing Republican defending a government program for poor people, one could be forgiven for assuming that it must be remarkably effective—which, in fact, it is. Peer-reviewed studies have repeatedly found that SNAP reduces food insecurity in the United States by approximately 13 percent. What’s more, it has been found to reduce obesity and improve baby weight. According to a 2016 paper published in The American Economic Review, “access to food stamps in utero and in early childhood leads to significant reductions in metabolic syndrome conditions (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes) in adulthood.”

SNAP is also among the most important programs helping to lift people out of poverty; currently, only the earned-income tax credit can be said to do more. This is good for the health of the overall economy and not just for the individuals who get the benefit, as the recipients contribute more in taxes over time.

Coverage of the proposed SNAP cuts suffers from the same “both sides” syndrome that infects most of what we see, read, or hear in the media. The Washington Post featured a debate between Northwestern University economics professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, who earned a PhD in the field from Princeton, and noneconomist, non-PhD in anything, and professor at nowhere Robert E. Rector, a “senior research fellow” at the anti-intellectual Heritage Foundation. Schanzenbach offered specifics and statistics, while Rector spouted unsupported assertions mixed with outright falsehoods. (He has expounded similarly on topics ranging from immigration “amnesty” to race and IQ and even abstinence education—always without demonstrating any expertise beyond the ability to appeal to whatever ignorant right-wing ideologues wish to believe.) Yet nowhere did the Post identify the participants’ qualifications; nor did the paper put much effort into refereeing between the truth and lies that each “expert” presented. Readers starved for guidance as to where the truth lay went away hungry.

Nation columnist Eric Alterman has been writing for the magazine since 1983.

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