It’s Thursday morning and the West Hunter Baptist Church’s parking lot has a line of people growing, waiting for a distribution from a local food bank. In the meantime, USA Today reporter Marisol Bello is making an appearance on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal discussing an article she wrote describing the rising level of the food insecure in the United States. According to Ms. Bello, there are 49 million Americans at risk of hunger and 16 million of those are children. Ms. Bello writes:
“Food bank directors say that since the start of the recession in 2009, they have seen an increase in families with children, the working poor in particular, and seniors. Many are people who’ve lost jobs, some are college educated and had been middle class, and others are seniors on fixed incomes who can’t afford the rising costs of health care, food or utilities.”
Describing circumstances in Minneapolis, Ms. Bello writes further:
“In Minneapolis, Second Harvest Heartland has seen a 26% increase in people visiting its food pantries from 2012 to 2013, to 400,000 people. Rob Zeaske, Second Harvest CEO, says the people who come to the food bank have lost jobs, had hours cut at their current jobs or found jobs at lower wages. “That’s the story underneath,” he says. Many of the newcomers are working but are unable to make ends meet.”
Food insecurity is a threat to one’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. I’ve been there and without the support of family I would have been one of those people standing this morning in the bread line at West Hunter Baptist Church.
It’s easy to be cynical about the poor. They have been described as lazy, lacking accountability for the personal choices that put them in their current situation. A gentleman calling from Brooklyn, Maryland commented as much during Ms. Bello’s appearance on Washington Journal. In his opinion it was about personal choices and the expectation among the poor that food stamp programs and society in general were their to bail them out.
He probably ignored Ms. Bello’s observation that a number of these people have jobs or were laid off in the recession. Americans demonstrated during the last recession that we don’t maintain enough of a capital cushion to maintain ourselves during downturns. The level of exposure to downturns experienced by minorities is especially acute given the amount of wealth and lack of diversification of assets in minority communities.
For example, Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy released in 2013 a report documenting 25 years of changes in the levels of wealth in black American and white American families. The wealth gap between the groups widened from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,000 in 2009. White American families had $113,149 in wealth while black American families had $5,677 in wealth. What the IASP study noted was that there was little evidence supporting the notion that personal attributes and behavioral choices were root causes of the disparities. Rather, what drove the gap was the “configuration of both opportunities and barriers in workplaces, schools, and communities that reinforced deeply entrenched racial dynamics in how wealth is accumulated and that continue to permeate the most important spheres of everyday life.”
Thomas Pikkety argues in his most recent work, “Capital in the 21st Century” that the meritocracy is an illusion; that returns to capital will continue to outpace returns to labor or wages. You can be busting your butt, but it doesn’t mean that you will be able to keep your head above rising costs.
My question is, what good are collectivists mechanisms such as “society” and “community” if the food insecure cannot be adequately provided for? Shouldn’t society or community be there to provide that safety net? Does society see the poor as having any value such that it ensures 16 million children don’t go to bed hungry every night?
People live in societies because of the protection provided by living in groups. Is society saying that part of the deal is you bring me some value and I will take care of you? Could this be the core reason for why the poor and hence the food insecure cannot secure income necessary for feeding themselves? This may be the missing piece from the imbalance; that existence alone is not enough to justify an investment into feeding you. There are no returns to the human capital of the poor that society wants to capture.