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economic justice | labor


Hunger, homelessness, unemployment, poverty and income inequality are swiftly increasing in the United States.
The following article and accompanying quotes will appear in the Dec. 15 issue of the Mid-Hudson (NY) activist newsletter. For free sub, ask at



While the Bush administration pursues policies intended to benefit the wealthy, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, poverty and income inequality are swiftly increasing in the United States.

Over 23 million Americans received emergency hunger relief from private charities so far this year, two million more than four years ago, because of government cutbacks in social programs under the last several administrations. On any given day, some 300,000 people are homeless in the U.S., and cities such as New York are experiencing marked increases in recent months. "Official" unemployment has shot up to 8.2 million workers, a jump of 2.6 million in a year. Poverty is deepening throughout the country as poor families are being thrown off welfare as they reach time limits imposed by the Clinton administration. Income inequality--the difference between the wealthy and everyone else--has reached a 50-year high.

These statistics derive from recent reports by government agencies and established private-sector organizations fighting poverty. As expected, African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans suffer disproportionately in all the categories, as do women and children generally. Meanwhile, President Bush-- taking advantage of temporary high approval ratings as he leads the country into several wars "on terrorism"-- is seeking more tax breaks for the rich, an economic incentive package that the New York Times defines as a "tax-break giveaway to corporations and the wealthist Americans," and the privatization of Social Security, among a host of measures to further widen the gap between the richest 20% of the American people and the remaining 80%.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors underscored the critical nature of the problem by announcing Dec. 12 that hunger and homelessness increased significantly in the last year according to the organization's 17th annual survey of cities. Conference president Marc H. Morial of New Orleans declared that 25 or the 27 cities surveyed "showed an increase in demand for emergency food. These cities on average show the increased demand was 23%. That is the largest increase our survey has shown since 1991." He also noted that 23 of the "cities showed increase in demand for emergency shelter. This reflects in the individual cities an average of about 13% increase, the second highest since 1994."

Making matters worse, according to columnist Bob Herbert in the Nov. 19 New York Times, "Seldom in the last half-century has the U.S. been so poorly prepared to assist individuals and families struggling with the effects of a recession.... Example: the unemployment insurance system, which was established to ease the pain of temporary joblessness, covers less than 40% of the people who are out of work. Example: the food stamp program, which was supposed to slam the door on hunger in the world's greatest nation (and which once served 90% of eligible families), now serves just 60% of the poverty-stricken folks who qualify for help."

America's Second Harvest--a network of over 35,000 private food banks, soup kitchens, food pantries and homeless and emergency shelters--reported in December that 9% of the U.S. population, 23.3 million people, turned to its private charities for hunger-relief because government programs were inadequate to keep them fed. It is not known how many millions received food from the 20% of charities not members of the Second Harvest network, which itself acknowledges "we are still not meeting the incredible demand."

In an exhaustive survey of 35,000 individuals called "Hunger in America 2001," the organization says its study "punctures the myth that hunger is only a problem of the inner cities, homeless or the chronically unemployed.... Nearly 40% of households that received assistance from us in 2001 included an adult who was working. Fully 19.7% are seniors [up 16% since 1997]. The facts about children are equally disturbing. More than 9 million children received emergency food assistance this year...." Women represent "two-thirds of adults seeking food assistance.... Nearly half of all emergency food recipients served by food banks live in rural or suburban areas of the country."

Other findings reveal, some "31 million Americans live in households that are food insecure, meaning they are either hungry [about half of them] or at risk of hunger." Over 62% of emergency food recipients "have attained high school diplomas or above." About 30% "of all client households have been forced to choose between paying for food [or for] medicine in the past 12 months." About 64% "of clients or anyone in their household have applied for -- and 29.8% are currently receiving -- food stamps," indicating that even those able to penetrate the bureaucratic "keep out" signs surrounding the food program need additional nutrition from charities. And the worst part of all is that many private food kitchens -- often the meal of last resort -- report not having enough food to go around. In New York City, for instance, the New York Coalition Against Hunger is now turning away 30% of people showing up for food. The coalition also noted in November that hunger in the city has jumped considerably since the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center because of all the additional jobless workers.

Homelessness is hunger's handmaiden. According to the Coalition for the Homeless last month, the number of children and adults populating New York City shelters has reached the highest ever -- over 30,000 at one time, not counting those who locate substitute shelter rather than bed down for the night in overcrowded and sometimes dangerous city-run facilities. The Census Bureau reported last year that 280,527 Americans needed shelter during the three days it conducted a survey. Since most homeless people suffer this condition for weeks or months, several times that number were without an abode of their own at one point during the year. The figure clearly has increased this year due to the recession, greater unemployment, and the government's continuing reduction in welfare support, especially for women and children. Locally in the Mid-Hudson region, housing advocates reported recently that 2,000 people are now homeless in Dutchess county,

Contributing to both hunger and homelessness is recession-driven unemployment, officially reaching 5.7% in November according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This figure is expected to jump in the next half-year because well over a million more jobs are expected to disappear. The official figures, incidentally, are misleading because they do not include several categories of workers including those classified as "discouraged," that is, workers who have given up seeking a full-time job or any work at all because of months and years of fruitless searching.

According to the experts, ever-tightening government restrictions result in jobless benefits now being available to somewhat less than 40% of unemployed workers. For example, a laid-off part-time worker, one who has held the job only a few months, or a worker who quits or is fired, is not eligible for benefits. In recent years, states frequently have limited jobless distributions in concert with reductions in welfare payments and foodstamp availability. Many of those fortunate enough to obtain a jobless income are plunged into poverty because the benefits are so paltry, unless they have supplemental savings. On average, the weekly benefit for an unemployed American worker who qualifies amounts to about $230 a week for up to a half-year. In some states it's higher, but the benefits are lower in such states as Alabama, Arizona, California, Mississippi and South Dakota. In addition, the jump in unemployment has been accompanied by a considerable increase in the number of Americans without health insurance. Since in most cases insurance is tied to the job, some 40% of workers losing employment will also will likewise end up without the means to obtain healthcare. Government programs to transfer health insurance to the unemployed through the COBRA program are proving to be thoroughly inadequate.

In New York City, because of Sept. 11, scores of thousands of workers are now looking for jobs in an exceptionally tight market. Some 60% of the lost jobs were in the low-wage area--restaurants, hotels, retailing -- paying about $23,000 a year. Many of these workers are ending up poor, hungry and/or homeless while the media tends to focus public attention on the police, firefighters and higher paid financial services employees.

The official federal poverty level is set at an absurdly low $14,630 a year for a family of three. As all working people know, it takes double this amount for three people to survive without extreme discomfort in most cases. Indeed, some 40% of those living at and below twice the poverty rate experience food insecurity and nearly as many cannot afford health insurance. According to the Census Bureau, almost 12% of the American people--33 million people--live below the official poverty level. This figure includes 20% of the nation's children, or 16 million kids. Many tens of millions of adults and children live between the poverty level and twice the poverty level, and the living is hardly easy for most of them, according to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute.

As trends continue, millions more Americans will descend into poverty in coming years, confronted as they do so by the dismantling of what remains of the government's commitment to social services. Millions of poor people have been dropped from federal welfare program over the years as a result of the 1996 Clinton welfare reforms--known by the deceptively uplifting title of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The act terminated almost six decades of Washington's cash payments to the poor to help them survive. Most of these workers have found that the jobs they obtained paid such low wages (averaging $7.15 an hour, or $14,872 a year) and include so few benefits that they continued to exist in poverty. Now, those workers who managed to remain on welfare -- mainly women with young children receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- are being dumped because of mandatory five-year limits imposed by the 1996 law. The New York state government began canceling welfare benefits for an estimated 38,000 families on Dec. 1--nearly all headed by single mothers. An additional 13,700 families are expected to reach their time limits in the next three months, Albany officials said that all the families were being transferred to a state-run benefits program -- but welfare advocates reported that many poor families were actually being denied state aid.

The United States today is increasingly transforming into a society where the great bulk of the nation's wealth is possessed by small proportion of the population. Some 5% of the American people control over 60% of the country's considerable assets, while the bottom 80% holds about 16% of the assets. The upper-middle 15% take the rest. The Census Bureau reports that in 2000 half the nation's total income went to the top fifth of the population, while 3.6% went to the bottom fifth. In the last decade, the top fifth of U.S. families have substantially increased their share of the country's income and assets while the bottom four-fifths has experienced a decline in its share.

There is nothing on the agenda of the two political parties which alternate in governing the United States to indicate they have any intention of deflecting this trend toward the concentration of ever greater wealth and privilege in the bank accounts of an ever smaller minority of the population.



There are billions of people in the world, including many millions in the United States (see accompanying article), who do not have the resources to obtain sufficient food for themselves and their families. They are the hungry. Around the world each day, 24,000 of them die from starvation. In a year, almost 9 million people succumb to a slow and painful death from hunger, mainly in the former colonized countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. According to the United Nations, it would cost $40 billion a year to provide adequate food for all the people on the Earth who are hungry, PLUS provide universal access to basic education for all who need it, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, and clean water and safe sewers for all. This amounts to about 4% of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world. The annual cost for insuring the availability of basic food and health services only, for those lacking adequate nutrition and minimal healthcare, is $13 billion a year. This amounts to $4 billion less than North Americans and Europeans spend annually on pet food. The material resources to end hunger and starvation are available in abundance. Just look at the money the U.S. throws away in wars, or the multi-billions in tax cuts for the wealthy, or the unfair trade practices and corporate wage exploitation the developed world imposes upon the poor countries. The wretched plight of these hungry people, and the relative ease with which their travail could be alleviated, is a damning indictment of the leading capitalist economies which preside over the international economic system with utter indifference toward the sufferings these fellow human beings. How many editorials critical of this the socio-economic source of world hunger have you ever read in your local newspaper? It's the Great Unmentionable of our age. Following are a few thoughts about hunger amidst plenty.

BERTOLT BRECHT (1898-1956), the anti-fascist German poet and dramatist: "Those who take the meat from the table/Teach contentment./Those for whom the contribution is destined/Demand sacrifice. Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry/Of wonderful times to come./Those who lead the country into the abyss/Call ruling too difficult/For ordinary men."

WILL ROGERS (1879-1935), the American humorist, actor, and Wild West rope artist, as the Depression deepened in 1931: "Ten men in our country could buy the whole world and 10 million can't buy enough to eat."

ANDY WARHOL (1928-87), the U.S. pop artist, while volunteering at a soup kitchen in New York City on Thanksgiving Day 1986: "If there's this many hungry people there's really something wrong."

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (1890-1969), a General of the Army and 34th U.S. president: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.... Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."

CARSON McCULLERS (1917-67), American novelist and short-story writer, from her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a parable on fascism: "We live in the richest country in the world. There's plenty and to spare for no man, woman, or child to be in want. And in addition to this our country was founded on what should have been a great , true principle -- the freedom, equality, and rights of each individual. Huh! And what has come of this start? There are corporations worth billions of dollars--and hundreds of thousands of people who don't get to eat.

ANONYMOUS (1912), written on placards carried by mill workers during the famous Lawrence, Mass., textile strike: "We want Bread and Roses Too." Also, a slogan from the same strike: "Better to starve fighting than to starve working."

ANONYMOUS (1917), the Bolshevik slogan: "Bread, peace and land!"

ANONYMOUS (circa 1905), from the preamble to the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World: "There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life."

WALTER BAGEHOT (1826-87), the English economist, journalist and essayist: "Poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult [for them] to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell."

ALEXANDER POPE (1688-1744): But still the great have kindness in reserve,/he help'd to bury whom he help'd to starve."

EUGENE DEBS (1855-1926), the great union leader, speaking to striking workers during the Pullman strike in 1884: "If it is a fact that after working for George M. Pullman for many years you appear two weeks after your work stops, ragged and hungry.... You are striking to avert slavery and degradation."

THOMAS JEFFERSON (1743-1826), third president of the U.S., in his inaugural address in 1801: "Take not from the mouth of Labor the bread it has earned."

JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH (1908- ), the U.S. economist: "In a rich society, no one should be allowed to suffer from deprivation such as homelessness, starvation and illness. This ideal is essential, not simply as a matter of human good, but as the price we pay for a measure of domestic tranquillity.

JOE HILL (1879-1915), the IWW organizer and working class poet, from his song, The Preacher and the Slave: "Long haired preachers come out every night,/Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right;/But when asked about something to eat,/They will answer with voices so sweet:/You will eat, bye and bye,/In that glorious land in the sky:/Work and pray, live on hay,/You'll get pie in the sky when you die (that's a lie!)"

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