Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this op-ed misstated the number of children in 2006 that lived in households that couldn't afford enough food. The correct statistic is more than 12 million children.

No Rescue For the Hungry

By Joel Berg
Sunday, September 28, 2008

When social services advocates like me hear that the cost of the federal bailout of the finance sector might top a trillion dollars, we're not quite sure how to process such a massive figure.

Our country has been told that a gargantuan government rescue of the private sector is necessary because the collapse of major financial institutions would lead to unthinkable outcomes for society. Almost as if by magic, our nation's leaders conjure up vast sums to respond to this crisis.

Yet when advocates point out that our nation is facing an altogether different kind of crisis, one of soaring hunger and homelessness, and that a large-scale bailout is needed to prevent social service providers nationwide from buckling under the increasing load, we are told that the money these agencies need just doesn't exist.

In 2006, fully 35.5 million Americans, 4 million more than in 1999, lived in households that couldn't afford enough food, according to the Agriculture Department. Those households included more than 12 million children.

Last December, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that out of 23 major American cities, 80 percent had an increase in people using emergency soup kitchens and food pantries and 43 percent had an increase in the number of homeless children. All that happened between November 2006 and November 2007.

How did the federal government respond? It didn't.

The only federal program that provides cash to both emergency feeding programs and homelessness prevention services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Emergency Food and Shelter Program, wasn't expanded by a penny. Even though the program enables thousands of nonprofit agencies (many of which are faith-based) to aid millions of struggling people nationwide, its budget hasn't been increased for six years. Given that costs for food and housing have skyrocketed over that time, the program has, in effect, suffered from massive cuts; the charities that depend on this money are reeling from the strain, many teetering on the verge of collapse.

Even the farm bill's much-touted increase in federal nutrition assistance funding was nominal. The bill provided an extra billion dollars in funding annually, but that works out to less than $30 per year for every hungry American, an amount already lost to the spike in food prices. When we ask members of Congress and lobbyists to help obtain serious funding increases to meet the soaring needs, we are patronizingly praised for our good work but told that times are just too tough to increase budgets. Maybe there will be more money when the economy improves, they tell us, oblivious to the reality that funding for our programs is most needed when the economy is weakest.

In New York, where I live and work, the situation is bleak. The number of meals served by city-supported soup kitchens and food pantries was up 9 percent in the spring from a year earlier. While the City Council rebuffed Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to cut funding to these agencies in June, Gov. David Paterson has persuaded the state Legislature to cut funding for emergency feeding programs twice in the past six months.

The state slashed funding for community-based feeding agencies 16 percent in April and an additional 6 percent in August, after having ruled out a plan to avoid these and other cuts in social services by restoring previous levels of taxation on New Yorkers who earn more than $1 million per year. Other states are making similar budget choices.

We're told to simply accept these cuts because everyone is suffering. But that's just not true. According to Forbes, there are 64 billionaires in New York City with a combined net worth of $344 billion, a staggering 469 percent more than the collective worth of the city's billionaires two years ago.

Federal tax cuts are a major reason the net worth of billionaires is still astronomical nationwide. Surely, if some of those tax cuts were rescinded and the money was used to reduce the hunger and homelessness of their fellow Americans, those billionaires would somehow manage to muddle through.

Just as it is unthinkable for the country to allow financial giants to go belly up, it should be unthinkable to look the other way as tens of millions of low-income Americans (the types of people who clean the offices of AIG and Fannie Mae at night) go without food or shelter. It's time to get our priorities in order.

Joel Berg is executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of the forthcoming book "All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?"

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