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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It’s a question of priorities.Apparently it was more important to some people to subsidize an ailing, corrupt insurance corporation in 2008 than to feed and clothe everyone in the United States.Apparently it was more important to the same people that (radioactive) waste be laid to vast tracts of Mesopotamian archaeology and that agonizing death be wrought upon generations of Middle Eastern civilians and U.S. American military personnel than to feed, clothe and give a free Rolls-Royce to every single individual on the planet.The worst obesity problems facing America are fat-headed leadership, and how long the general populace will go on lazily believing that their alleged leadership has anything of value to offer society as a whole, that this sort of leadership has any purpose in life besides feeding only the Rich.

Posted by The Bell | Report as abusive

I went hungry last night when the wait at Red Lobster was more than 45 minutes! It seems that the key to long life is a little starvation- people who are on the verge of starvation, but not starving to death, live much longer. Hopefully the stats in the US are true, as a people, we would be better off for it. Starvation only hurts if you starve to death, otherwise it is a good motivator to get out of poverty.

Posted by Claude Slagenhop | Report as abusive

Apparently, it is more important to waste money on war, endless war. The president is committing a bankrupt country to fight a Wall St war paid for by taxpayers; another 30,000 soldiers to the graveyard of civilizations. what is the war about? killing who? Bin Laden? Al Queda? Taliban (who we funded and created). The USA is not the country it used to be, in fact, its not even a country anymore. It’s a collective of duped citizens who believe we have a government protecting them, when in fact it is really the Incorporated States of America owned, rented, controlled by multinational greedy corporations who make money on killing and starving us. They take everything, your homes, your lives, your children, the air over your head, the water from the clouds, the earth under your feet, and your soul and mind. The USA is only a mercenary, a puppet, for multinational corps and a new world “order” as they call it. this writing is from a normal middle class american, not a wacko.

Posted by Kat will in man | Report as abusive

What in the world does executive compensation have to do with hunger? (Hint: Asolutely nothing!) Kind of a clumsy, transparent play of the class envy card there! What rubbish! Absolutely no one in America has to go hungry. Food Stamps, free school lunches (and free health clinics too, btw!)and meals at shelters are readily available. The sad reality is that the Democrat’s liberal policies, beginning with LBJ’s “Great Society”, have had the unintended result of perpetuating and expanding an underclass dependent on government handouts. The saddest fact is that so many have been propagandized to believe they can not make it on their own, particularly among African Americans. This explains survey results suggesting many think the system is not fair.The assertion that Americans have less upward mobility is flat ridiculous. For God’s sake, a black man with no talent or experience was just elected president! Affirmative action programs and financial aid programs based on need are robust and wide spread. Most anyone who does not succeed in America has only themselves to blame.

Posted by DanDetroit | Report as abusive

btw-In addition to adequate nutrition,even those considered below the “poverty level” in the U.S. typically have housing, one or more cars, cell phones and air conditioning!

Posted by DanDetroit | Report as abusive

I am mostly appalled that The Bell was forced to wait 45 minutes for a scrumptious feast from the Red Lobster. And now being reminded of Red Lobster, I am off to Red Lobster.

Posted by alvin | Report as abusive

Does anyone here complaining about the system ever even donate to the food banks? They need money and they’ll take anything they can get.I donate to 3. Yeah, it sometimes means not going to restaurants and movies (which are both grossly overpriced) but I just can’t turn my back on people I know are hungry. We can be a part of the problem or the solution, but I get so tired of people complaining about how bad this country is. Move then!

Posted by Katherine | Report as abusive

Very interesting article with 100% of reality as a “Paradox”Congratulations for the author.In my understanding, I believe that worse is coming. Less and less people are representing middle class. Without middle class no any society has any progress. Now only Greed and Greed is the “Importance Of Being Earnest”People who are preparing “Codex Alimentarius” GM Food, damaged catastrophically our planet1. 27 billion running lawsuit for dumping toxins by Texaco – presently Chevron in Amazon, Ecuador2. Alberta Oil Sands the worst and biggest, present individual pollutant in the world according to Gore. Although President Obama is scheduled to participate in Copenhagen debate, the Canadian Prime Minister is going to be absent. How many natural resources are destroyed (soil, fish, animals – real food).The worst thing that so many bad things promoted by big corporations who have now power over governments are legally free for making our planet worse and worse in thesake of greed.

Posted by Ted M. Konewka | Report as abusive

I expect that the “Powers That Be” who run this Country will give us more Circus to make up for the diminished Bread.

Posted by D Sakarya | Report as abusive

There is hunger, homelessness, and growing numbers of those without health care in America. And until we address the real causes, the shame will continue.Instead of blaming the victims of unfettered capitalism for their failure to adapt into the predatory system, we should blame the system for failing to provide the opportunities for living a life without the shame and disgrace of poverty.Living in the land of plenty and being cold, hungry and homeless is totally unacceptable. If the system can not meet the needs of the society, then society owes no allegiance to that system.I already know what the defenders of selfishness and greed will say about me, but it doe not matter. There will be enough of those who read this to understand where I’m coming from.It’s about responsibility being a shared concept, not a top down, finger pointing, tongue clicking, elitist member of the “ownership society” trying to blame the less fortunate for their own situation. So….The economy should fit the needs of the people, not the people serving the greed of the “ownership society”.

Posted by awfton | Report as abusive

Hungry and obese.With the prevailing trend according to studies Americans will be 85% obese by 2040.Obesity is a problem of modern life providing excessive food and machinery that replace human exercise.The challenge is to develop awareness on healthy lifestyles eating less when food is so abundant and keep working when machinery can do everything.Education is just helping people to get more money but not using their knowledge on their own good.Even the General Surgeon is obese. A physician that failed to use her background on her own good is leading Americans on healthy issues.The truth is that developed countries are having problems with the food system as well and with the economic issues.It seems that poor countries can afford neither fast food nor a flawed economic system that greed and fear mars simple laws of offer and demand.There is no doubt of an ongoing widespread failure on global leadership in order to protect simple principles of human existence.We are molding a new landscape we were not prepared to deal with but time will teach us the nature functioning required to keep going.

What unadulterated bullshit! 50 mil go hungry! Get a life. I am sick and tired of crazies getting a free ride in the press. Make something sound bad enought and we will print it. enough already.

Posted by Phil | Report as abusive

DATA below from 2004. Anyone know what it is now?The top 1% of families owned 37% of all stocks, 62% of all closely held businesses, and 47% of nonresidential real estate. Percentages for the bottom 90% were 21%, 10%, and 24%, respectively.America’s 112 million families had combined wealth of $50.3 trillion in 2004. When those families are ranked by the size of their wealth, however, the top 1% alone held $16.8 trillion in wealth, more than a third of the United States’ total wealth and more than the $15.3 trillion held by 90% of U.S. families. The top 1% had average wealth of $15 million per family in contrast to the $22,800 average wealth of the least wealthy 50% of families or the $313,500 in wealth for families ranked between 50% and 90%.Homes accounted for more than a third of American families’ assets. Primary residences are the asset with the least-skewed ownership, with the top 1% owning primary homes worth $1.9 trillion and the bottom 90% owning $11.8 trillion. That is not the case, however, when it comes to ownership of second homes, a far greater source of wealth for the top 1% ($1.1 trillion) than the bottom 90% ($0.02 trillion).

Posted by Louise H | Report as abusive

Flawed methodology, class warfare and misleading stats. If ‘hunger’ includes people *worried* about putting food on the table, then it’s all pure BS. So that 50 million number is simply manufactured out of whole cloth. And its worse, if you miss a single meal during the year, for nearly ANY reason, it can be included in the stat. Even 1 meal on 1 day.In other words, this is misleading propaganda and not worthy of coverage. Reuters should be ashamed.

Posted by Penguintopia | Report as abusive

DID YOU KNOW:If each person on the planet was given an equal amount of Earth’s global resources, the average standard of living possessed by each person would be equal to a lower class mexican slum dweller.This average standard lowers yearly, as Earth’s population expands larger. By 2050 if each person was given an equal share of resources, the average standard of living will be equal to a starving african adult.Essentially, the only way to eradicate poverty is to make everyone equally destitute.

Posted by Friendly Fact | Report as abusive

These are good questions, but they are certainly not uniquely American. I am an American who has lived in Europe for the last five years. Net real (purchasing power) pay for the normal citizen here is much lower here than in the U.S. and food is much more expensive, both prepared and at the grocery store. People eat less here, for sure. I eat like a normal American and am thinner than average, but coworkers are constantly commenting on how much I eat!Standards for what is considered “hungry” in North America are much, much lower than anywhere in the world. Once again, the U.S. is, ironically, both the proudest and the most self-depricating nation on earth.

Posted by Zooropa | Report as abusive

“What in the world does executive compensation have to do with hunger? (Hint: Asolutely nothing!) Kind of a clumsy, transparent play of the class envy card there! What rubbish! Absolutely no one in America has to go hungry. Food Stamps, free school lunches (and free health clinics too, btw!)”Dan,executive compensation would not be a problem if it weren’t paid for by money that was supposed to go towards securing the interests of the citizenry. Those free school lunches and free health clinics depend mostly on government subsidies. Where will that money come from when it’s going to finance war and destruction?Class envy indeed. Try living on the services you mentioned. See how far you get. You obviously have no idea what it’s like. Have YOU done anything to help provide for those school lunches and free clinics? And don’t give me the tired answer that you pay taxes. Every person pays taxes unless they make no money at all, or are wealthy enough to avoid it.Your comments are the epitome of the selfishness that has caused so much suffering in our nation. If you are fortunate maybe you too can be one of the poor you despise so much. Then you will gain some perspective and hopefully a little wisdom.

There is an answer to unrestricted accumulation of wealth at the expense of the masses. It is called ‘communism’. This is when the long downtrodden poor seize the means of production and liquidate the rich as a class. Only now the means of production are being exported from the country to slave nations. When the great awakening occurs, and it now seems inevitable with only the ‘when’ unknown, the people will find their factories….gone! They will also find the holders of the ‘paper’, the so called ‘intellectual property’, the so called ‘rights to manufacture’, the so called ‘rights to distribute or sell’ ….gone to foreign ‘safe havens’. These will be some island somewhere protected by treaties among all the rich nations so that a revolt among one will be met, Metternich style, by war and invasion from all the others. This strategy will fail, just like it did in 1848, when multiple nations become involved and conflicting national ambitions down the pacts. Getting at those of the wealthy class will be difficult, and deadly, and the longer the rich hold out and steal from the people, the much more thorough the extermination of them when the days of reckoning finally come. Along with the liquidation of the rich will be, as this time lengthens, the concommitant annhilation of their lackeys and useful fools and fellow travelers will also become more determined. This will be an action among billions of people and inexorable as a slow motion train wreck. Leaders of the popular rage when found, betrayed, or whatever will almost instantly be replaced by others. Put ‘commies’ in jail, they will convert the entire contents of the places. Kill them and they will be martyrs to the masses in a social event that will make the French Revolution seem like an ice cream social.

Posted by Chester Drawers | Report as abusive

Sometimes folks have to make sacrifices to purchase that 98 inch flat screen tv or the latest xbox game.Let them make their choices, but please stop with the guilt trip. I already feel guilty for racism, sexism, homophobia, and the destruction of the environment. I can’t handle the responsibility of being guilty for yet another critical issue like hunger.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

Another nut case. Americans are doing fine. Everyone feels obliged to ‘rescue’ the other guy, take care of yourself pops.

Posted by funnominal | Report as abusive