U.S. Food Crisis: Until We End Poverty, We Are Not Free

The United States of America is the “wealthiest country in the history of the world”. We hear this repeated so often, it’s almost as if it has become the national slogan. Economists tend to agree that it’s the truth, but that wealth is relative: tens of millions of Americans live in abject poverty, unable to obtain basic sustenance, medical care, adequate education or even basic public safety. One in five children in the United States now live in poverty. Among African American and Hispanic children, the rate is 30 percent.

In some formerly leading industrial states, one in four households is now on food stamps, and unemployment insurance and welfare are now capped and conditioned on expectations that cannot be met given the real-world economics of the places where affected people live. The social assistance system was reformed virtually out of existence in the 1990s, and over the last 12 years, has evolved to offer solutions that only highly educated people with no history of credit problems or public assistance could really qualify for.

Essentially, people who have comfortable lives have engineered, through their political choices, a system in which people who have never had comfort, or opportunity or anything resembling a fair and level playing field, are treated as if their poverty is the result of laziness. This is a misplaced focus on the virtues of independence and free will. We cannot use the virtue of individual liberty to throw our fellow citizens to the proverbial economic wolves.

Yes, anyone does have the freedom to and should have the wherewithal to apply informed free will to make sound choices and lead a productive, self-sustaining life, but the conditions in which such a thing is possible are not always within reach. When a system of economic activity becomes as complex and sophisticated as that of the United States, it is all too easy for hard-working, intelligent, good people to be systemically boxed out of any and all real opportunity. We should guard against that kind of institutionalized hardship cycle.

When a cycle of economic, political and educational degradation, persists long enough, entire communities can find they have no one working to improve them that is simultaneously rooted in the community and empowered by a series of successes and by a network of people who stand on solid economic footing. In such a situation, communities degrade radically, until there are no supermarkets, no banks, no clothing shops, no reliable businesses and normal everyday life cannot function in line with commercial expectations for a prosperous economy.

In that kind of situation, what sort of jobs is one supposed to seek? Whole communities find their local economic stock depleted to the point where they can only look for work in neighboring communities, often having to compete with people not facing the same obstacles they face. Protections that would help them obtain work in such communities have been stripped away and the financial cushion meant to help them retrain and take advantage of opportunities has been cut off.

The United States now faces the disturbing contradiction of being the world’s richest country, blessed with an extreme surplus of food, clothing and property, yet being unable to provide affordable housing and food to a very large segment of the population. In 2009, one in seven Americans, 14.3% of the population, was living in poverty, according to official government numbers.

That’s 44 million Americans living in poverty.That’s the entire population of Spain. Of 224 nations on Earth, 194 of them have populations smaller than the number of Americans living in poverty. There are more people living in poverty in the United States than in the Sudan. And poverty is not just a temporary gig: it’s a spiral of factors that close in and make escape all the more difficult, despite the lavish opportunity available to others within the same society.

When a family is in those circumstances, the most likely scenario is that there is not enough money to pay for enough food for everyone to thrive. When public assistance is cut off, there is no solid economic footing on which any member of that family can stand to make a move upward. Upward mobility is supposed to be the “American dream” —anyone can build a castle for his or her family, if only they work hard enough—, but the United States has fallen behind Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Spain, in social mobility.

The new report [pdf] from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) finds the United States falling behind other leading industrial democracies, as access to quality basic public schooling and higher levels of education is put out of reach of more and more people. Deep cuts in social spending, spurred by massive, unfunded tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, have put unprecedented stress on public school budgets, causing property taxes to rise and playing havoc with crucial programs that cultivate a more dynamic, upwardly mobile workforce.

France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States were singled out as four developed nations where the socio-economic status of fathers closely determines the opportunities available to children. The report also finds that “Inequalities in secondary education are likely to translate into inequalities in tertiary education and subsequent wage inequality.” (OECD, p. 5) In other words, if the quality of high school education is vastly disparate, access to the empowering environment of a top-level university education will be greatly diminished for those with a less advanced high school experience.

Since 2008, states and municipalities have been aggressively cutting the funds available for public education. California’s budget crisis bodes very ill for its once vibrant network of cutting edge public schools, and has caused its lauded research universities to turn to private funding to expand their endowments. In New Jersey, cuts have been so deep, even individual schools in rural Cape May saw 7-figure cuts to their annual budget, causing layoffs and reducing the resources available to students.

If not for a $100 million challenge grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, many outside observers believed Newark’s failing school system was headed for financial ruin and possible institutional collapse. Chronic underfunding and a property-tax-based system of public school funding put Newark in a kind of razor’s edge circular logic of failure and penalty, undermining students’ chances and degrading the local community.

The failing school system was in such dire straits, it was under state control (a condition in municipal-control New Jersey that means “bring of disaster”) for 15 years. Now, Zuckerberg’s grant will allow Republican governor Chris Christie (responsible for crippling cuts elsewhere) and Democratic mayor Corey Booker to give control back to the city, with Booker’s office taking on the responsibility for finding $100 million in matching donations and administering a wholesale revival of the district’s schools.

Funding matters. And education matters. The philosopher Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, speaking of his passion for Greek classics, is credited with saying “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” But in the United States, fiscal pressures lead politicians to toss funding for books, schools and teachers, to the wind, even as they decry the cost of social assistance such as food stamps and welfare (clothes and shelter).

But it might be that investing in books is precisely what troubled school districts from Newark to Camden to Cape May (all in New Jersey) to Philadelphia to Sacramento need to do. Cutting funding allows politicians to posture about their own short-term “fiscal responsibility”, but that political capital is purchased with the degrading of young people’s and entire communities’ future opportunity and prosperity.

Punitive standardized testing, viewed with concern by many education experts as something of a racket that pads the profits of educational publishers (who create and distribute the tests and sell books designed to help prepare course material related to them), has nudged public education away from the paradigm wherein every innocent child has the right to a complete and thorough top-quality education, which also serves our interest as a society by yielding more well-rounded, dynamic thinking citizens, to a cut costs, punish-to-improve mentality.

But a student that tests well in science in 3rd grade might see his or her future career limited to low-paying vocational work that requires mechanical understanding, if he is never exposed to any creative fields that work on the intellectual centers of the brain, and a 3rd grader who tests not very far above average in basic science, but excels at playing the cello, painting and gymnastics, might have a better chance of being able to recognize the potential of a career in astrophysics, and be better prepared for it.

If we are not upwardly mobile, we are not as free as we pretend to be. If we leave 44 million of our fellow citizens behind, without so much as a flutter of the eye or a downward curl of the lip, our republic is not as committed to democratic principles as we say it is. We are the republic, every one of us, and if the inner-city child in a single-family home that owns no property can’t get her hands on a book to develop her own abilities, we are less free, and if the Appalachian child, living with three generations of his family cannot develop writing and IT skills, we are less free, every one of us.

Right now, one in seven American citizens is living in poverty. If you’re not the one, then one in six of those around you is. And if you can safely say “not so in my backyard”, then you are living a segregated life where everybody’s liberty and life experience, including your own, is degraded. One in seven of us is living in poverty. One in American children are living in poverty. One in three Hispanic or African American children are living in poverty.

In the eight years from 2001 through 2008, household median income fell by $2,000. Our economy collapsed in 2008, because our banking system was operating on the assumption we were all getting richer, when in fact, most of us were getting poorer, even as basic expenses, and interest rates, healthcare and transport costs, steadily rose, eroding our individual liberty to live as we would choose.

The road to real reform is long and complicated. It will require tough choices. But those choices might have to be something a little more selfless than “cut the budget for my neighbors’ kids’ school”. It may have to be: “if I vote you in, I want you to do whatever it takes to make sure our schools work, and our kids have a future, and our neighbors’ kids and their neighbors’ kids”.

It might have to be we take seriously the lessons of thinkers as diverse as Thomas Hobbes and Martin Luther King, Jr., Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, John Dewey and Thomas Jefferson: if even one among us is boxed out of a full, self-empowered and prosperous life, excluded from the generosity of human intellectual history and real-time human ingenuity, then we are all diminished, and our freedoms are hollowed out, and our republic is in jeopardy.

While the Great Recession, or its lagging statistical wake, rattles on, we need to make sure that no one who lives in this society is treated as less than fully human, that no one is denied food or shelter or the right to self-improvement or genuine opportunity. We need to make sure there are no hungry children and no school closings based on ideological bias or unstudied experimentation. We need to take seriously that every single thing we do is building our future republic: do we want to slide toward an anti-democracy, or empower every citizen to help shape a better, freer future?