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Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It Hardcover – June 1, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Journalist Abramsky (Hard Times Blues) combines an account of his own seven-week experiment in living on a poverty budget with moving vignettes of men and women who have fallen through society's frayed safety net and are suffering from food insecurity. Tens of millions of Americans live in a continual state of anxiety; to malnutrition is added the further suffering of shame and despair. Focusing on communities in Western states, the author uncovers the tragedy of the collapse of the middle class. Unionized industrial giants like General Motors have fallen on hard times and global economic restructuring has had a devastating impact on many workers, often stripping them of benefits accumulated over decades. Although providing a vivid glimpse into the world of food banks and soup kitchens, the book, which reads like a series of newspaper articles, offers few suggestions for solving the problem aside from challenging political leaders to make corrections to a system gone tragically awry. (June)
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I just finished Sasha Abramsky's excellent Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It. Abramsky takes us inside food pantries, soup kitchens, and school lunch programs and introduces us to Americans struggling to feed themselves and their families. In a series of "interludes," Abramsky recounts his own adventures in hunger--while researching the book, he spends seven weeks living on a reduced food budget in order better to understand how it feels to be hungry.
The funny thing about this book is: while it purports to be about hunger, it's actually about jobs.
All of the people whom Abramsky profiles are victims of our country's broken labor system. He devotes a chapter to the way that Wal-Mart has driven down wages for the entire service industry, laments the decline in the real value of the minimum wage, and visits manufacturing workers who have lost their pensions in a multi-million dollar company buy-out.
Other issues come up as well: as a result of rising gas prices (at the time that the book was published), work isn't always profitable, and the high cost of health care means that a single health crisis can plunge a family into debt. Come to think of it, these last two issues are about jobs as well. . .
Rabbis and synagogue members often tell me that they have chosen, as a community, to work on hunger because of the prevalance of this issue in America, and because the issue is "not political." And it's easy to identify with hunger--all of us have experienced at least mild hunger pains, many of us are familiar with end-of-Yom Kippur nausea and weakness, and some of us grew up hearing the hunger memories of Holocaust survivors. Jewish sources point to hunger as the most obvious mark of poverty, and demand that each community care for its hungry members.
It's true that hunger is way too common in the US, true that it's virtually impossible to find a fresh vegetable in many low-income neighborhoods, and true that far too many people depend on emergency food programs such as soup kitchens and food pantries.
That said, hunger isn't really the issue. The US Conference of Mayors has found that, in 25 cities surveyed, fully 40% of those who access emergency food programs are employed. That is--having a job is no guarantee that one will be able to afford housing, health care, transportation, food, and other basics of life.
While the price of food has gone up in the past few years, food remains a relatively small percentage of most families' budgets, compared to housing and health care. We are aware of the hunger crisis because many families choose to buy food last--lest failure to pay rent result in eviction, or failure to pay for certain health costs result in serious illness or death--and because emergency food is generally more available than emergency housing or health care.
I'm not saying that we should stop paying any attention to hunger. I, personally, give money to my local food bank, and periodically volunteer for emergency food programs. Today, when so many people are out of work, or facing reduced pay or hours, our food banks and soup kitchens are stretched beyond their limits, and desperately in need of monetary and volunteer help (with monetary being the key word).
That said, a focus on hunger can cause us to lose sight of the real issue--falling wages. Many of our communities don't want to tackle this issue, as any forays into minimum wage, living wage, union organizing, or other related issues can feel too "political." But choosing to address the symptom of hunger without fixing our national wage crisis is also a political choice.
Now, you might remind me at this point that we're in the midst of an economic crisis, that companies are shedding jobs left and right, and that many businesses consider wage reductions to be the only way to stay in business. But this approach is short-sighted. As Paul Krugman points out, lowering wages might set a dangerous precedent that will make economic recovery more difficult:
[S]oon we may be facing the paradox of wages: workers at any one company can help save their jobs by accepting lower wages, but when employers across the economy cut wages at the same time, the result is higher unemployment.
Here's how the paradox works. Suppose that workers at the XYZ Corporation accept a pay cut. That lets XYZ management cut prices, making its products more competitive. Sales rise, and more workers can keep their jobs. So you might think that wage cuts raise employment -- which they do at the level of the individual employer.
But if everyone takes a pay cut, nobody gains a competitive advantage. So there's no benefit to the economy from lower wages. Meanwhile, the fall in wages can worsen the economy's problems on other fronts.
In particular, falling wages, and hence falling incomes, worsen the problem of excessive debt: your monthly mortgage payments don't go down with your paycheck. America came into this crisis with household debt as a percentage of income at its highest level since the 1930s. Families are trying to work that debt down by saving more than they have in a decade -- but as wages fall, they're chasing a moving target. And the rising burden of debt will put downward pressure on consumer spending, keeping the economy depressed.
Krugman suggests devoting a significant part of the stimulus money to creating well-paying jobs that will set the standard for a new economy.
Few of us can stomach the sight of long lines of people waiting for hot meals and food boxes in one of the world's wealthiest countries. But, as Abramsky's book quietly points out, the solution to hunger will come through a revolution in our employment laws, and not through increased access to emergency food assistance.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, author of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law & Tradition
I say "biased" because the author doesn't explore why those covered do not pursue moving into urban areas where help is more accessible, what they and others could do to help themselves (eg. pursue retraining), nor why they ended up where they are now. On the other hand, I am not suggesting these problems are trivial or entirely self-caused, having met individuals myself who have lost most of their jobs, pensions and health care benefits through corporate bankruptcies and restructuring, or retrained only to find their new "opportunities" unexpectedly wiped out by new problems. I have, however, seen many people use Food Stamps for purchases at high-priced "Quickie-Marts" instead of nearby lower-cost grocery stores (there is even a market for selling Food Stamps at a discount to buy prohibited items - eg. liquor), fail to patronize "day-old" bread stores, start relatively large families without sufficient incomes, be satisfied with a lifetime of seasonal employment followed by unemployment insurance, and decline easily obtainable high-paying/good benefit jobs in preference to living at home with parents while pursuing much less desirable work.
Another bias of the author is that he doesn't recognize that many of today's problems are PARTLY the outgrowth of prior union excesses within eg. the airline, metals, communications, and manufacturing industries, and prior public largess (eg. prior to President Reagan, Arizonans fared much better, especially after taxes, using welfare programs than working; illegal alien recipients were particularly resented).
Abramsky does make a contribution, however, pointing out that minimum wage, poverty-level guidelines, food stamp support limits, and asset limits are inadequate.
Finally, there is the issue of remedies. Government support for bio-fuels raises food costs and is incredibly ill-advised, referenced by the author, and should be terminated. Abramsky favors unions and higher minimum-wage laws. Unions, however, have a history of their own excesses, referenced previously. Additional current examples include public pensions for public-safety personnel (threatening to bankrupt a number of large cities), and public school teachers (pay and benefits approximately double that of private-school teachers - creating major tax burdens for others). Higher minimum-wage laws may be helpful in the short-run (likely reduced employment trade-off). However, the root causes of America's "jobs problem" are excessive job losses due to outsourcing, and excessive illegal immigration. Ironically, the latter is reportedly largely due to NAFTA plus government "welfare" farming subsidies that permit sending food into Mexico and displacing large numbers of their workers.