09 September 2018

Ending Hunger

Written by 
“What the latest food security report revealed about children in rural America. One in four children is food insecure.” (2014) “What the latest food security report revealed about children in rural America. One in four children is food insecure.” (2014) http://www.merlofarminggroup.com/household-food-security-us-%E2%80%93-part-2

Amazingly, the goal of halving the number of undernourished people worldwide was just about reached hrough the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015). UN chief Ban Ki-moon declared at the end of that process, “The MDGs helped to lift more than one billion people out of extreme poverty, to make inroads against hunger, to enable more girls to attend school than ever before and to protect our planet.” Still, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says 815 million people (10.7% of the total 7.6 billion) suffer from chronic undernourishment.

Quoting from the best recent studies, CBS reported on May 2018 that one in eight adults in the United States suffered from food insecurity (“not having enough food because of a lack of money or other resources”) and one in six children. Other research shows one in seven adults and one in five children. The ten most food-insecure states are all in the south.

My goal in this blog post is mostly to highlight the work of one faith-based organization, Bread for the World. I will also introduce the successor program to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, 2015-2030), which seek to provide states and NGOs alike a common blueprint for improving the lives of those most struggling in today’s world.


The functional side of our world community

Arguably, our world is riven with conflicts under the surface, with some already boiling over in several parts of the world. Syria and Yemen, for different reasons, are magnets drawing in many powers that could easily end up fighting one another in the process. North Korea still threatens to use its nuclear weapons, and the Trump administration seems poised to attack Iran.

At the same time, the story behind the MDGs is an inspiring tale of nations coming together, crafting a new vocabulary and agreeing on a new strategy to fight the scourge of poverty and injustices done to women and other marginalized groups. It inspired struggling nations to roll up their sleeves and work on those goals in a way that made the most sense to them.

After the UN final MDG report came out in September 2015, Bread for the World was full of praise for the success of this mammoth collective project:


“According to the final report, the MDGs spurred "the most successful anti-poverty movement in history.” In fact, the goal of lowering the global rate of people living in extreme poverty (living on less than $1.25 a day) by half was more than met. Extreme poverty fell from 47 percent in 1990 to 14 percent by 2015, an even more impressive achievement when you consider that the world's population continued to grow in the meantime.”


Naturally, much work lies ahead, but this success spurred the global community to set a new batch of goals for the next 15 years. There were eight broad MDG goals: “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and forge global partnerships among different countries and actors to achieve development goals.”

In the next round the eight goals became seventeen goals and sustainability became the overarching principle undergirding them. A New York Times article on the same day gave more details regarding these SDGs:


“The new global goals are more ambitious, and are meant to apply to every country, not just the developing world. Stated in broad terms, the goals are accompanied by 169 specific targets meant to advance the goals in concrete ways. Most are meant to be achieved by 2030, though some have shorter deadlines.”


Three of the goals, for instance, target environmental sustainability:

13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

15. Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss.

I’ll leave it at that for now, but in a coming post I will return to the SDGs as a projection of a philosophical and interfaith perspective I believe is crucial for all of us to ponder and adopt in one form or another.


Ending food insecurity in the US

The hunger goal for the MDGs was to cut the number of food deprived people in half, and as mentioned above that goal was just about reached. But hunger was subsumed under “poverty.” The Sustainable Development Goals, by contrast, are much more ambitious (because they now seem attainable!):

1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

How “ending hunger” in the developing world is much wider topic than I can deal with here, but doing so in the United States, the most powerful and wealthy nation on earth, should not be that difficult. Plainly, it is a national disgrace that so many children and adults do not have access to sufficient food. Yet, on the flip side, says the 2018 Bread Hunger Report, the solution is simple: make sure that “everyone who wants a job can get one and that it pays a sufficient wage.” That “decent job” is one that “should provide families with the means to put food on the table. For those who are raising children, a decent job should allow them to balance their responsibilities as an employee and parent.”

But there’s a wider context as well: decent jobs are the number one factor for combatting hunger in developing nations. So here is the main thesis of this 2018 hunger report:


“The zero-sum narrative holds that prosperity in another part of the world must come at the expense of workers in the United States. But it doesn't have to be this way. Better policies can make the difference. We can reclaim the American Dream for all in our country, and we can share that powerful dream with our neighbors who are striving for more than a subsistence life.”


Before moving on to the text itself, let me emphasize one more time: this Christian organization’s research and political advocacy is built around a central principle: it must all be done in bipartisan fashion. More than ever in our present political climate, this is so vitally important!

The report lays out four points, which I will summarize here:


1. Stagnant wages are contributing to hunger. Since 1980, when adjusted for inflation salaries have gone down for lower class and lower middle-class families. Economic growth has in a spectacular way benefitted the top one percent of Americans who earn at least one million dollars a year (have a look at their Figure 1). That said, what has allowed the lowest earning Americans to barely keep their heads above water has come through such federal nutrition programs as SNAP (known previously as food stamps), Woman, Infants, and Children Program (WIC), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). These are “indispensable,” says the report. What is more, if economic growth had been more equitable, “it could have raised income for everyone.”

Then comes this important statement about human dignity and work. “Labor is more than a commodity. The work people do is a source of dignity in their lives, or at least that is how it should be. It is dehumanizing when wages are not sufficient to provide for basic living costs.” When rent, transportation, childcare, and health care have been paid for, then people buy food. Put otherwise, “Food is the most flexible item in a household budget, which is why hunger is usually episodic. It shows up after fixed costs are paid—when monthly SNAP benefits are exhausted but the next paycheck has not yet arrived.”


2. Policies can improve opportunities for low- and modest-income workers. On the one hand, we count on markets to “function efficiently.” On the other, they cannot do so unless government enacts and monitors rules that allow it to do so. Another necessary government job is to ensure that workers are protected and adequately supported. Yet it has fallen behind in making sure workers earn a living wage: “The federal minimum wage, currently set at $7.25 an hour, has not been raised since 2009. When adjusted for inflation, it is worth 27 percent less today than it was 50 years ago.”

Besides raising the minimum wage, government has to set up an adequate infrastructure, particularly in areas where poverty is concentrated. That includes better public transportation, better roads, but also better “human infrastructure,” like better schools, “child nutrition and child care.” Those “are cost-effective investments in the current and future workforce.”

Prison reform figures high on the list of things to fix in this area. Close to one third of non-working men between 25 and 54 are behind bars. Because most of them are fathers, they represent the population most exposed to poverty and hunger. Yet thousands of statutes nationwide bar individuals with criminal records from working. Members in Congress on both sides of the aisle would like to see that change. That could mean shorter sentences and more effective prison programs preparing inmates to re-enter civilian life. More, “A nationwide infrastructure initiative could be a new source of jobs for these returning citizens.” [Clearly too, racism and poverty are closely related in the US; Bread has a helpful report on that].

Surely the people most vulnerable to poverty and hunger are undocumented immigrants, even though their rates of employment and entrepreneurship are higher than the national average. The quicker we enact immigration reform, the faster we will empower a population that will energize and expand our economic output. And, of course, we would then be obeying the biblical mandate to care for the “foreigners living among you” (Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 16:11; 26:11; Ezekiel 47:22; Malachi 3:5).


3. Reducing poverty in developing countries can contribute to economic opportunity for all Americans. This is not a zero-sum game. To the contrary, as poverty rates have fallen around the world, trade has increased on all sides and all have gained – sadly, not always equitably, but the potential for fairer trade is palpable, if we push for it. Think of it this way: in 1985, 29 percent of US exports went to developing countries; today, it’s about half, and that could rise.

“Compared to other high-income countries, the United States invests a much lower share of national income in helping displaced workers adapt to the changing global economy. The United States also invests less in the health, education, and economic security of its people.” We could learn a lot from other developed countries in this area.


4. Through advocacy and political engagement, citizens have the power to bring about change. The report chronicles the constant rise of economic inequality, the erosion of people’s faith in the democratic system, and particularly as they witness the outsized role of corporate money in politics. The 2017 tax cut law only exacerbated the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The Bread report reminds us that we citizens in a democratic polity have a say in how government establishes the rules that frame our collective life as a nation. We need to take more responsibility by means of a) legislative advocacy (“telling our members of Congress what we want them to do on specific issues”); and b) elections advocacy (“getting in on the ground floor”). This is what this organization has been doing for 44 years: “organizing churches and Christians to urge Congress to take actions that are important to hungry people.” It then adds, “In its early years, Bread for the World played important roles in establishing the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) nutrition program and child survival programs around the world.”

Put simply, soup kitchens and food pantries are necessary, but nowhere sufficient to fight hunger in the US. Congress must pass laws to keep the programs that have proven effective in the past and level the economic playing field so that no one is left behind. And we can help make sure our members of Congress do the right thing.


Interfaith advocacy is the most effective

On a website sponsored by the Islamic Circle of America you can read an excellent article on this topic, “Interfaith Action on Hunger: A Shared Obligation.” Though people of all faiths have worked together to eradicate hunger before, it is especially the effort of Jews, Muslims and Christians that is the easiest to marshal. Their texts plainly mandate caring for the needy, and especially feeding the hungry. At one point the author writes,


“Around the world, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and others are hard at work, working together to eliminate hunger. Individual Muslims and other can support these efforts in any number of ways, as interfaith action is valuable in a wide range of initiatives that target hunger, from local soup kitchens and food banks to programs that invest in international food security or engage in global advocacy.”


Finally, on the occasion of Pope Francis’ visit to the US in September 2015, a group of 69 diverse American religious leaders issued an “Interfaith Religious Leaders’ Pledge (downloadable in a window in Bread’s 2018 Hunger Report). Of that number three were Jewish and three were Muslim (including the CEO of Islamic Relief, Anwar Khan). This pledge coincided with the UN’s signing of the SDGs, but the Pope who had spoken on this topic at the UN also spoke about this to a joint session of the US Congress. So I will end with the American religious leaders’ pledge, and in particular the next to last paragraph which highlights the role, not only of civil society and NGOs, but also of the American government:


“Ending hunger will require action by all sectors of society and by all the nations of the world. Yet a shift in U.S. national priorities seems crucial to ending hunger in our country and internationally. People of goodwill can disagree about policy strategies. But ending hunger by 2030 seems unlikely unless we can achieve a shift in U.S. national priorities by 2017, so that our government helps to put our nation and the world on track toward ending hunger."


May it be so! And may we citizens, from all political parties, strongly urge our elected officials to work toward that goal. Ending hunger by 2030 is achievable.