A paradox of plenty – hunger in America

By Bernd Debusmann
November 24, 2009

Bernd Debusmann–  Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Call it a paradox of plenty. In the world’s wealthiest country, home to more obese people than anywhere else on earth, almost 50 million Americans struggled to feed themselves and their children in 2008. That’s one in six of the population. Millions went hungry, at least some of the time. Things are bound to get worse.

This the bleak picture drawn from an annual survey on “household food security” compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and released in mid-November. It showed the highest level of food insecurity since the government started the survey, in 1995, and provided a graphic illustration of the effect of sharply rising unemployment.

This year’s picture will be even bleaker – the unemployment rate more than doubled from the beginning of 2008 to now, at 10.2 percent the highest in a quarter century. It is still climbing, and for many the distance between losing a job and lack of food security is very short.

In keeping with the American predilection for euphemisms, the word “hunger” does not appear in the report which classes food security into several categories, from “marginal” and “low” to “very low.”

Marginal food security means, in the lexicon of the USDA, “anxiety over food shortages or shortage of food in the house.” The second category, low, means “reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet,” but not necessarily less food.

The most severe category, “very low,” used to be labeled “food insecurity with hunger” and is defined as “disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.” That applied to around 17 million people, up from 12 million in 2007. Black and Hispanic families and single-parent households are the most affected.

It is not the kind of hunger — think African famines, skeletal babies with distended bellies — that brought world leaders to a U.N. food summit in Rome this month to boost aid from rich countries for agricultural development in the Third World. The U.S. is a land of plenty, so much so that a study by the University of Arizona a few years ago found that the average household wastes about 14 percent of their food purchases.

Food is so abundant that overeating is more of a problem, numerically and in terms of public health, than under-nutrition. The Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy group, makes the point that “poverty can make people more vulnerable to hunger as well as obesity,” one of the reasons being that food high in calories is cheaper than healthy food. For many  Americans, hunger and obesity are two sides of the same poverty coin.

(International health statistics put the United States at the top of the obesity league. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight and a third of these are obese.)


Vicki Escarra, head of Feeding America, a hunger relief charity that runs 200 food banks in the U.S., has likened the growing difficulties of those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder to conditions in the Third World. She is right in more ways than one.

The USDA report reflects inequality of Third World proportions. While the Great Recession has culled the ranks of American millionaires — by 22 percent according to a September study by the Boston Consulting Group — the gap between rich and poor is not shrinking.

Last year, according to a report by the census bureau, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans made 11.4 times more than those living on the poverty line. The year before, the ratio was 11.2. At the far end of the economic scale, America’s six largest bank holdings have set aside $112 billion in salaries and bonuses during the first nine months of the year. By year’s end, bonuses might exceed the almost $164 billion paid in 2007, before the credit bubble banks had helped to inflate burst and millions of Americans lost their jobs and savings.

Banks and other financial institutions were rescued by a $700 billion infusion of taxpayer money and news of the bonuses coincided with reports that U.S. wages were at a 19-year low. Which helps explain growing anger among a public long famous for lacking the resentment of the rich that is common in other parts of the world.

After all, a bedrock belief in America held that this is the land of unlimited opportunities where every citizen has an equal chance to succeed and become rich. That requires an assumption that the system is fair. How many Americans still believe that? Last summer, a pair of political scientists, Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs, published a study whose findings included that just 28 percent thought the present distribution of wealth is fair.

More evidence that the gap between myth and reality is shrinking comes from the American Human Development project, a research group which found that “social mobility is now less fluid in the United States than in other affluent nations…a poor child born in Germany, France, Canada or one of the Nordic countries has a better chance to join the middle class in adulthood than an American child born into similar circumstances.”

A better chance to avoid food insecurity, too.

You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com


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Poverty in America is not a function of failure of society, it is a product of behavior. It is a result of not finishing school, substance abuse, self-destructive behavior and over consumption in “good” times. I’ve watched aliens come to America and within a short time become a “success.”

Posted by KMH | Report as abusive

Food banks are exhausting their supplies. Soup kitchens are experiencing bigger crowds seeking free meals.Most affluent people avoid the central slums of any city. They do not see the squalor that they’ve left behind.The homeless are now experiencing a new challenge: how to find a place to sleep, which is becoming harder to do as at least the state of Massachusetts has drastically cut funding for the poor.

Posted by Bernie | Report as abusive

“Call it a paradox of plenty. In the world’s wealthiest country”…I had to stop reading there. You guys are not even close. The USA is a disgraceful example of greed and selfishness that uncontrolled capitalism will bring to any country. Your massive social problems are a direct consequence of your greed and unwillingness to share within your society and still you can not accept it. Social support is evil right? Losers.

Great article! There are real problems developing in the U.S. and I think Obama is on the right track in dealing with some of them. Wealth is getting more concentrated at the top and is flowing to those who do little of real economic value. The middle class is increasingly growing poor and struggling to hold their lives together. The weight problem proliferates through the middle/lower class who eat cheap fast-food to fill themselves rather than healthy more expensive fare. So many of our nations problems stem from these issues as they manifest themselves in our health care system, legal system etc. all of which are getting ridiculously out-of-whack!

Posted by Brian | Report as abusive

If all the fat people would stop eating so much, maybe there would be enough to go around.

Posted by b | Report as abusive

Mr. Debussman is my favorite Reuters columnist, and this article on hunger in the U.S. is particularly moving. My wish is for him to post a future column that outlines some solutions both governmental/corporate and individual. My sense is that Americans are skeptical of charitable institutions due to many highly publicized scandals (including hunger-focused charities) wherein very little of the donations actually went to the hungry.Two other reasons we don’t act on this problem: (1) we’ve grown too accepting and complacent regarding “soup kitchens”, “food pantries”, and other labels that suggest there’s a ready solution for anyone who’s hungry, if they’ll just humble themselves enought to use them, and (2) the photos used when describing the hungry tend to be of adults, which reinforces the idea that these “able-bodied people” are just shiftless and lazy–the photo used for this column was unusual, as it was a child, and whether or not this was stock footage, the fact remains that it counteracts the “able-bodied” assumption and arouses more compassion.In short, I honestly believe that Americans, Republicans, Democrats and those in between, would take action on the hunger issue if we only knew what steps–societal and individual–would really make a difference.BTW, imagine what would happen if a campaign to fight hunger in America was marketed by the same geniuses who market iPhones, Kindle, or Coke!

Posted by Terry | Report as abusive

There’s lie, and then there’s blatant lie, and then there’s statistics.Even without access to exact numbers, I’d like to clarify the “household food security” stats a bit.Out of 17M counted as “The most severe category”, how many are food stamp recipients? The answer is “most”. Actually, it would be “virtually all” if we don’t count illegal aliens and those caught in violation of food stamp rules and consequently dropped from the program rolls. I know personally some food stamp recipients, and I know that, if planned carefully, the food stamps amount is sufficient to carry the recipient through, and even some are left over to be quietly exchanged for cash one way or another.Now, how many out of the 17M are smokers, or heavy drinkers, or drug users? The answer is “a lot”. If these substance abusers are put before the choice between food for them and their kids, or the substance of their choice, what the choice would likely be? Yep you guessed right.Before implying racism and social injustice, think who these people are, and how they got where they’re now. Hard work, clean life, and strong faith usually don’t take people to the state when they can’t put food on the table. Abuse and reliance on nanny state do. Yes, there are people who fell on hard times because of medical issues, accidents, or simply bad luck, but they are a minority in 17M of people being in “the most severe category”. The majority are there due to their own “efforts” for lack of better term.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

It really is worth looking at the political party that represents the states with the highest amount of poverty in the US.And I wonder why is that?

Posted by gill | Report as abusive

Compared to Europe, fruit and vegetables are expensive in the US. They’re also not advertised as much as fast food. The proportions are also much, much larger in the US. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw chocolate pies the size of car tires, strawberries the size of apples and 2 liter coke cups.Obese Americans could use more physical exercise as well.

A recent story on my Public Broadcasting station highlighted a homeless 20 something who admitted selling his food stamps for “weed”. This was possible because he can consistently find three meals per day though local relief agencies. Where is his incentive to change?

Posted by LBJ | Report as abusive

AnonymousYou read like someone who has never known struggle. Or if you have known these kinds of struggles you were at least surrounded by people willing to lend a helping hand in some fashion.That doesn’t much happen in the inner cities. Our economic system is plagued with thieves. You call them corporations. They are citizens under US law. With all of the money at their disposal they make sure that their interests are secured before and, or, at the expense of true citizens.Corporate citizenship is a scourge on society. These “citizens” are sociopaths. They care only for money and profit. They have only one responsibility which is to increase share holder value. Because profit is the only motivation they understand, responsibility and good citizenship are not and will not ever be part of their mission.They siphon money out of the system and leave massive debt behind. Now whole families go hungry. They are forced to buy the cheapest foods available in order to make their money stretch. These low grade foods eventually cause disease which places more stress on the health care system ( such as it is).Kids who don’t eat well do poorly in school. And teens that don’t eat well leave school in order to pay the bills. And don’t think that most of them go into legal jobs either.An inner city drug dealer can make enough money to pay his family’s bills and put food on the table. And no one can blame those people that choose that path. There is no reason for them to show loyalty to a system that has failed them.Corporate thieves get to keep their ill gotten profit and apologize. Poor criminals get thrown in prison. And then those who’s survival depended on that income are left without.Society teaches us that “cash is king”. And then we wonder why people don’t care about each other.

Some of these responses are pathetic.Anonymous: Your entire argument is baseless, trying to tie together substance/alcohol abuse behavior to keeping people in poverty just shows you have lived with a silver spoon in your mouth. Many people don’t turn to substance abuse and alcohol until they are in poverty, not only that some people are born into it, so where is the correlation there?b: The answer isn’t as simple as fat people stop eating so others can eat. Some people are under nourished while still being fat. Go to a supermarket with $1 and see what you can get that will provide the most calories, it is not going to be in the produce aisle I assure you.KMH: Using pretty little phrases doesn’t mean you make sense. I’ve watched aliens come into the US and come out worse then where they came from, so pointing to a couple success stories says nothing.The whole food issue is far too massive to pin on a couple cute solutions. Good article though and definitely food for thought.

Posted by Moose | Report as abusive

This is more nonsense by the liberal media. Everything, except the current administration, is fine in America. We are better off than every other country in every way. God bless America and support our troops.

For the last 50 years we’ve been importing poverty from over the border and subsidizing the poverty that was already here. Now we’re wondering why there’s so many poor people around. Yeah, that one’s a real brain-buster.

Posted by OliverClotheshoffe | Report as abusive

I don’t consider the extreme wealth distribution in this country a paradox. “Free” trade, outsourcing and immigration put the American middle class in competition with slave labor all over the world with the result that the “middle” class hasn’t had a raise in 30 years after adjusting for inflation while job growth has stagnated. By definition, the average IQ is 100 so half the population will never be movers and shakers but must have jobs that require mostly manual labor (skilled and unskilled) which is becoming scarcer and scarcer for Americans.This country is now owned by big worldwide corporations and I don’t think there’s any turning back. We have shot ourselves in both feet and the blood will continue to run.

Posted by Ray | Report as abusive

An obese friend of mine just got back from Disneyland and said he was shocked to see so many obeses twice as big as himself everywhere. He said many of them were no longer walking… they just use small karts to move themself around carrying huge bottles of coke and eating fries. Out of breath fat kids trying to catch up with their parent’s karts… Those guys just roll themselves from McDo to another McDo. That’s pathetic. USA! USA! USA! lol

Posted by Canuck | Report as abusive

as far as being obese lets talk about health care reform right there…..the poor have been with every society to me if a person had a piece of land and a shelter the tools for survival would be there so the truth of whether one would ever do anything to get themselves out of the situation they are in would be shown in a more pure way instead of going with the status quo of college job white picket fence etc which is fine but the “choice” defines a society of freedom which i believe our constitution is trying to give us instead of a society dominated by corpratism and imperialism with progressivley higher income taxes versus a shrinking middle class

Posted by kameha | Report as abusive

One wealthy US Industrialist,with great clout in that country and the rest of the World,is reported to have said,at the end of the 60s of the last Century,that the USA,would be de-industrialized.He should have known what he was speaking about and its consequences.This planned destruction of the US Citizens is deplorable and raises apprehensions that the same would happen in other nations of the World.

More evidence that the gap between myth and reality is shrinking comes from the American Human Development project, a research group which found that “social mobility is now less fluid in the United States than in other affluent nations…a poor child born in Germany, France, Canada or one of the Nordic countries has a better chance to join the middle class in adulthood than an American child born into similar circumstances.”

Posted by Ken bin Ken | Report as abusive

Many people do not think of fast food as a killer. The problem is that fast food kills slowly and painfully, through the development of many chronic sickness that sucks the national healthcare funds dry.