Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Posted on November 21, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday

Millions of Americans will sit down next Thursday to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal with family and friends without giving much thought to when their next meal might be or where they might have to go to receive some food. The inequality that has come to define America today is reflected not just in the lack of livable wage jobs, or unaffordable housing, or the lack of assets, but in whether or not a household has adequate and nutritious food to feed its members every day.

Approximately 49 million Americans live in households with food insecurity, including 33.3 million adults and 15.8 million children. Households that are particularly at risk are those with children (20%), single mother headed households (34%), Black (26%) and Hispanic (24%). The task of feeding America’s hungry and vulnerable often falls entirely on soup kitchens, food pantries and emergency food distribution agencies who themselves run out of food before they are able to meet the needs of those who rely on them, especially the record surge of people seen since the recession in 2008. The increase was acutely felt after November 2013 when food stamps benefits that had been expanded during the recession expired with Congress passing $5 billion in cuts in food stamps benefits affecting 48 million Americans.

In New York, budget cuts in food stamps affected nearly 2 million New Yorkers who lack adequate resources to ensure a predictable supply of nutritious food in their homes. Hunger in America, a series of studies that tracks the demographics of hunger and an analysis of the Feeding America network of partner agencies who provide food to the hungry, reports that there are currently 250 million missing meals – the Meal Gap – throughout the 5 boroughs of NYC each year. The Food Bank of New York supplies food across the city through a network of nonprofits to New Yorkers in need, but they too face a shortfall of more than 100 million meals less than what is direly needed.

Food insecurity in a nation as rich as ours is a horrific reality. It has profound implications for the overall prosperity of the country and the ability of ordinary Americans to participate fully in the civic and political life of the country. Research has shown that providing benefitsthrough government safety net programs have been the key to decreasing poverty rates over the last five decades. Without Social Security payments, the number of individuals over 65 living in poverty would have been an additional 15 million in 2013. Food stamps, a topic that has been the subject of acrimonious partisan debates, helped lift almost 4 million people above the established poverty line while earned-income tax credits have been found to reduce poverty levels by about 5.5 million people.

How can we reduce the precarity of millions of American lives as we head towards the New Year? Raising the minimum wage to at least $10 is an essential step towards moving low-income workers to more economically secure lives. Equal pay for equal work that would help to reduce the gender wage gap is another critical step to move women and their dependent children out of poverty. Funding the food stamps program which serves more than 47 million people and is one the country’s most important anti-hunger programs is another critical policy step. Without a shared vision to put an end to the unacceptable levels of inequality in the United States today, giving thanks at the festive table next week is a hollow gesture.

The writing and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute or Hunter College.