Hunger in America

So there’s bad news, good news and more bad news.

Bad news first: a study just released by the USDA documents that 14.5% of American households had difficulty at some time during 2010 providing enough food due to a lack of resources. This means that, in the richest country in the world, in 17.2 millions households there were one or more folks who were going hungry because they couldn’t afford to buy food. Dad didn’t get dinner, Mom didn’t eat on Tuesday. That kind of thing. In 3.9 million households, there was, at times during the year, not enough money to buy food for children.

That’s the bad news. The scandalous news.

The relatively good news is that this number has not risen since the economic collapse of 2008 (when there was a large bump). Even better news is that there were fewer households which are classified as “very low food security” (households in which there was significant disruption of eating habits or constriction of diets but not going hungry) in 2010 than in 2009.

When asked for the reason that there has not been a greater number of households going hungry since the collapse, Undersecretary of Agriculture Kevin Concannon said: “…the principal reason for that is the impact of these nutrition programs across the country — the food stamp, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; programs for women, infants and children; some of the school-based programs.”

“There’s no question in my mind that there would be catastrophic levels of people that were facing food insecurity without this,” Concannon says. (See or hear the full report here at NPR.)

The further bad news: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) wants to cut the budget for SNAP (formerly the food stamps program) by $127 billion or 20%. He told anti-poverty activists this summer that he’s concerned about reports he’s heard that SNAP is rife with fraud, and he says some changes are needed. These recurring charges have been answered and characterized as false. There is a history of these charges of fraud that includes Ronald Reagan’s famous lie about “Welfare Queens” driving around in Cadillacs. This debate about welfare cheats and poverty relief is not new. It dates back as far as institutional poverty relief.

So, to what extent, if any, should I be deterred from supporting poverty relief efforts because of the suspicion of fraudulent behavior? Most current responses to the charge of fraud either deny them or claim that they are far fewer than the opponents of poverty or hunger relief would have us believe. This is all well and good—and correct, as far as it goes. However, there is obviously going to be some small amount of fraud in any large, necessarily bureaucratized, system.  If the challenge about fraud is not merely a disingenuous smokescreen whose actual aim is the dismantling of government assistance in total, how should we respond to it? To what extent does that fraud undermine the enterprise? Need I demand complete asssurance that my welfare dollars are going to a person who is hungry beyond a reasonable doubt? Or, should I doubt and demand a higher threshold to guarantee that the money is not being wasted?

The classical Rabbinic tradition is enlightening on this question. There are a series of stories in both the sixth century Palestinian Talmud and the larger, later seventh or eighth century Babylonian Talmud, which point to the fact that we should not care about deceptive practices by recipients of poverty relief. A powerful statement is attributed to the great Sage, Rabbi Eliezer. (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 67b) “Let us be grateful to those who defraud us [rama’in] for if it was not for them we would be sinning every day.” This statement was then quoted by R. Hanina to his daughter when she complained that the person being supported by them was not actually needy. (There is a nearly identical story in the Palestinian Talmud Peah 8:9)

What is the thought behind this? There are two aspects of poverty relief. On the one hand there are hungry people who cannot be allowed to starve. This is not all. Providing the resources for the hungry to eat is a religious or spiritual practice which must be learned and perfected. This practice of opening rather than closing your hand, the practice of generosity can be learned even from generosity towards those who do not really need it. Those who receive poverty relief under false pretenses are thieves. That, however, is their problem (and the Talmud says some nasty things about them). We must be grateful that we continue, as a community, to practice generosity.

This is also the reason behind another law, originally found in the Talmud (Baba Bathra 9a) and then codified by Maimonides in the thirteenth century. “A poor person who is unknown to the community, who says: ‘I am hungry, feed me,’ we do not investigate his story to see if he is a fraud. Rather, we immediately feed him.” (In the next sentence, Maimonides makes clear that this law applies equally to all paupers, Jew or not.) (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the obligations to the poor, 7:6) We need, as a society, to practice righteousness, compassion and generosity. When a person says they are hungry, our first instinct must be to feed them. If our instincts fail, we need to have an institutional body which directs the resources such that they don’t go hungry.

It is scandalous that in the United States of America there are people who go to bed hungry, children who miss a meal, working people who are forced to fast for a day. It speaks well of us as a society that we have at least the food relief programs that we do. We should be working toward the day (which is neither utopian nor impossible) when hunger will be eradicated. Until that day, dickering about the necessary resources because some small percentage might end up in the wrong hands is just wrong.