Our monthly reading and discussion group, featuring All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America has started, and I just know you all have been busy reading. The author, Joel Berg, recently answered some questions about the book in an interview with yours truly for PostBourgie. We’ll use this post as a jumping off point for the discussion.
Domestic hunger and poverty, which are pretty much ignored by the traditional media, have been on the rise for years. According to Berg, prior to the recession, 1.3 million New Yorkers (two-thirds of whom are U.S. born, according to a fascinating survey taken by the Food Bank for New York City — PDF, source of above image) were clients at food pantries and kitchens.
shani-o: As of the writing of “All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?” 35 million – maybe more, in the current economy – Americans suffered from hunger or teetered on the brink. Americans seem to be collectively unaware of that. What do you think is responsible for the lack of functional knowledge about poverty and hunger in the U.S.?
Joel Berg: When we are told that the nation is “unaware” of the problem, I think that means that the media elites are unaware of the problem. After all, 35 million (now 36.2 million) is equivalent to a population bigger than the state of California, and the affected people are obviously quite aware of the problem. While I devote an entire chapter to the media’s failings in this regard, I don’t think we can let ordinary citizens off the hook, who often go out of their way to avoid seeing the difficult problems that exist right in front of their eyes.
shani-o: Can you tell our readers a little bit about what motivated you to write your plan to solve hunger in the U.S.? In the foreword, you say it was “your conscience prodding you,” but if that were all, you probably could have ended the book without offering your own solution to the problem. The history of domestic hunger and the current state of “food insecurity” are awful enough to stand by themselves. We know you have a policy background, having worked in the Clinton administration; how did that help or hinder your developing policy solution?
Berg: I’ve been talking about much of the content in my book for at least 15 years, but I thought writing a book would make those claims more credible to the public, and that’s turned out to be true. My background in government was a huge help in making my case.
shani-o: A significant portion of the book is spent on “Poverty 101.” You explain that for a poor person, meeting basic human needs is more expensive than it is for a middle-class person. And later, you note that when wealthy people are irresponsible, they are more likely to shaft the poor, but “when poor people are irresponsible, they tend to shaft themselves and other poor people,” be it through spending choices or through eating choices. You suggest that middle- and upper-class Americans often reprobate the poor for being human and ascribe poverty to moral failings, rather than looking at U.S. policy as a breeding ground for poverty. Can you briefly list policy that has made it difficult for poor people to exit poverty, and policy that has made it easier for them to enter the middle-class?
Berg: One policy implication I discuss in my book is how social programs -– including food stamps -– actually discourage families from saving money in a way that can help them climb out of poverty. In 2008, under Food Stamp Program operations in most states, if a person was legally disabled or over the age of 60, his or her household could only have access to $3,000 in countable resources and still receive food stamp benefits. For all other food stamps households, including large families, the resource limit was a paltry $2,000.
Therefore, if you had $2,001 saved in a bank, you lost every penny of your food stamp benefits. There was not even a ramp downward in which your benefits were reduced as your resources increased; there was simply a complete cut-off. What did that mean to actual families? Let’s say family “A” and family “B” were both low-income working families receiving food stamp benefits. Let’s also assume that both families scrimped and saved so well that they miraculously managed to end the year with $2,500 saved. Family “A” spent that $2,500 on a new high-definition, flat-screen TV. Family “B” put the money in the bank to save for their children’s college educations. Family “A” kept every penny of their food stamps allotment. Family “B” lost every penny.
Now I don’t begrudge Family “A” for buying that flat-screen TV. If they live in a low-income neighborhood, chances are that there isn’t a movie theater in their neighborhood anymore. There might not even be a public park that’s safe to use. Unlike some other Americans, they can’t afford fun vacations to the Caribbean, or even Disney World. So I don’t begrudge any family, no matter how poor, for spending their meager savings on entertainment.
That being said, given the fact that government resources are finite, shouldn’t the family that makes an even greater sacrifice of saving for their children’s education be rewarded, or at least not punished? After all, helping their children go to college is one primary way family “B” can give their children the opportunity to enter the middle-class.
shani-o: I recall that you dismissed a junk food tax (which is something we’ve discussed on the blog before) in the book. Why is that?
Berg: Taxing poor people for less healthy food without giving them more ability to afford more nutritious food will only make them hungrier. While well-intentioned, such a policy would be a big mistake – both patronizing and a waste of time and money. With billions of dollars at stake, the battle to define junk food would be epic, with nutrition experts pitted against food-industry lobbyists, slugging it out one food item at a time. Are Raisinets junk food or fruit? Junk food, you say? Then how about a caramel apple? What about a Fig Newton? Banana chocolate chip muffins? There would be protracted battles every year as new products are introduced and as the ingredients of existing products changed, requiring a massive federal bureaucracy to continuously make such determinations. Such a policy would also place a great burden on food stores to keep their lists of acceptable products updated. Other advocates want to entirely ban fast food restaurants from low-income neighborhoods.
Yet micromanaging the lives of poor people – or anybody, for that matter – is patronizing and usually backfires. A far better strategy than limiting food choice with food stamps, banning fast food, or passing a “fat tax,” is to increase the average food stamps benefit amounts so people can afford to buy the healthiest foods – which most food stamp recipients desperately want to do – and make healthier food more available in low-income neighborhoods.
shani-o: One particularly frustrating part of the book is where you discuss race, and the persistent (and racist) belief that the overwhelming majority of those receiving welfare are nonwhite, and how that has led to terrible policies that affect everyone – including the poor white people who make up the majority of those receiving food assistance. Do you simply hope for a less racist future, or do you think that the implementation of a plan like yours will change attitudes over time?
Berg: I do hope that racism will lessen with each new generation, but we must be vigilant in taking it on. That means breaking the code of silence in which Americans think about race but rarely talk about it in public. I try to break that code of silence in the book.
That being said, I don’t think the long-term solutions are race-based. I think we need policies that empower all struggling Americans, regardless of their race.
shani-o: You wrote that “Americans love charities almost as much as they hate government” and that while charities make volunteers feel good, they are simply less efficient than government at feeding hungry people. How did you become convinced that federal policy was the only answer?
I don’t think federal policy is the only answer. Charities, businesses, private citizens, and state and local governments all have vital roles to play in the fight against hunger. But this book argues that only the federal government has the size, scope, resources – and yes, the legitimacy – to take the lead.
shani-o: After giving an overview of previous administrations’ stances toward domestic hunger, you spend time making recommendations to the then-future President of the United States; how well do you think President Obama has addressed domestic hunger since his term began, and do you have any idea what direction his administration will go on it?
Berg: As I argued in the Huffington Post, the recovery bill was a giant leap forward in fighting poverty and hunger. And USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and his new Under Secretary in charge of domestic anti-hunger programs, Kevin Concannon, have been inspiring in their insistence in reiterating the importance of Obama’s pledge to end child hunger by 2015. But it is our job as citizens to ensure that the Administration and Congress work together to provide the resources necessary to meet that pledge.
shani-o: The economic climate has changed significantly since mid-2008 when you finished the book. Is it safe to assume there are significantly more people with less food security now, and have you seen a significant increase in clients at the NYCCAH? If so, how well has the organization met their needs?
Berg: Unfortunately, the situation, which went from bad to worse over the last few years, has gotten even more terrible over the last year (Word document).
shani-o: As you write in the book, the “three legs of good community nutrition” are: “nutritious food is economically available,” “nutritious food is physically available,” and “people know how to obtain, cook, and eat nutritious food – and choose, on a regular basis to do so.” That third leg seems especially tricky, because it requires significant government intervention. With the economy being the way it is now, do you think that part of the plan is still actionable?
Berg: All parts of the plan are still actionable if we build the political movement necessary to get government to do its job.
shani-o: What would be on your required reading list for someone who’s looking to understand more about hunger and poverty and the government’s role in solving those intertwined issues?
Berg: There’s a lot of good information on the web site of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger at: www.nyccah.org.
Here are some good books on welfare, poverty, and U.S. hunger:
Jason DeParle, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare (New York: Penguin Books, 2004).
Mark Winne, Closing the Food Gap, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008)
Nick Kotz, Let Them Eat Promises: The Politics of Hunger in America (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1968)
David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible in America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)
Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United State (New York: Touchtone, 1997), 176.
Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001), 78.
Janet Poppendieck, Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986):
Peter Edelman, Searching for America’s Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001)
Janet Poppendieck, Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).
Dick Gregory, with Robert Lipsyte, Nigger: an Autobiography (New York: E. P Dutton, 1964)