Developing strategies to end hunger

8 posts from December 2010

The A-Word

DREAM Act Image 

Amnesty: A legislative or executive act by which a state restores those who may have been guilty of an offense against it to the positions of innocent people.

The DREAM Act is the closest it’s been in almost a decade to becoming a reality. Stalled since its creation in 2001, it passed the House of Representatives last Wednesday. The Senate will now consider the House version of the bill and vote on it this month.

The bill faces a steep climb in the Senate where Republicans are—thus far—united in their opposition to its passage. But the delayed Senate vote is welcome. It means that Senate Democrats are taking its success seriously and are seeking to use the momentum from the House passage to round up the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

A recent poll shows that a majority of Americans also support the DREAM Act. But predictably, opinions are split along party lines. While 54 percent of all respondents said they support the DREAM Act, 66 percent of Democrats support it, and 63 percent of Republicans oppose it.

Those opposed, led in Congress by Republicans such as Sen. Jeff Sessions, Rep. Lamar Smith, and Rep. Steve King, are sure to use the lull before the Senate vote to continue to portray it as pardon for “illegals” that puts the country’s very survival at risk. To make this argument, one word they curiously keep repeating is “amnesty.”

When I was a kid, “amnesty” had a positive meaning. I remember television commercials for Amnesty International, an organization that urged viewers to advocate on behalf of those who had been wrongly imprisoned or persecuted. Amnesty was a noble goal to liberate the innocent.

But times have changed, and the change is downright Orwellian.

Someone in the anti-immigration movement has been busy “focus-grouping” words that scare Americans about immigration, and it looks like “amnesty” scored very high. If you go to the front page of the anti-immigration website Numbers USA, you’ll see “amnesty” mentioned in every single article on the DREAM Act. Most statments against the DREAM Act will use the word amnesty at least once.

I’ve been in Mexico conducting research on migration and development during the current DREAM Act debate, and it’s interesting to see the discourse from the point of view of migrant-sending communities here. Who are these people upon whom the DREAM Act and other immigration reform legislation would grant the dreaded amnesty?

Many of them are poor farmers.

They migrate because they want to pay for their child’s education. They have health care debts. Their family isn’t able to eat enough nutritious food. There are no jobs in their community.

They’ve already paid a high price just getting to the United States. They’ve probably gone into debt to pay for passage across the border. They’ve dodged the criminals that prey on migrants as they make their way north. They’ve trekked across the Arizona desert for days. Not everybody makes it.

They’ve endured months—and probably years—of separation from friends and family. And when they get to the United States, they spend their time working, sometimes relentlessly at two or three jobs.

Yes, they broke the law by crossing the border illegally, but somehow I can’t put them in the same category as Charles Manson. In spite of our economy’s reliance on their labor, there are no practical, legal migration options for them. Viewed from this perspective, amnesty—with standards and requirements for legalization—doesn’t look so scary.

Now may be the DREAM Act's last chance for years, at least in this form. In addition to all its practical benefits, it provides opportunity to a worthy group of young people whose only transgression was being carried or guided across the border by parents seeking to improve their lives.

Deficits We Should Really Be Talking About

A sense of hope I felt in 2009 while writing the 2010 Hunger Report, A Just and Sustainable Recovery, is gone now.  I hope it will be temporary. 

It’s the tax cuts. This is a raw deal and threatens to undermine any hope we all may share about a sustainable recovery.

Back in 2009, I believed that the government was going to make the necessary investments to put the country back on track to achieve a more broadly shared prosperity. Those are investments in the physical infrastructure, health care reform, low-carbon energy and, most important of all, education and workforce development:  building the nation’s human capital.

It was clear there would be opposition, but the mood in the country, I thought, had pivoted to a more sustainable view about the kind of future most of us wanted. The excesses of the financial sector and the wide-scale revulsion to them were proof positive that the policies that concentrated the country’s wealth in a decreasing share of the population had to end. 

The tax cuts, of which most will be divided among the wealthiest Americans, will add $900 billion to the deficit. Deficit hawks in Congress, hypocrites for the most part, will surely rail against the size of the federal deficit before long.  Cuts in military spending will be off the table. That leaves other discretionary spending, such as for education, energy, and infrastructure.

President Obama, speaking at a North Carolina vocational school on Monday, the same day he announced the tax deal with Congress, instructed listeners, "In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind."

Indeed. The United States has gone from 1st to 9th place among nations in the percentage of its population that graduates from college, and it now ranks 24th in the portion of children who have a high school degree. The main reason the U.S. economy was so dominant for much of the Twentieth Century is because U.S. workers on the whole were so much better educated than other workers across the world.  Here is a graphic that illustrates the educational advantage that U.S. workers held.

In North Carolina, the president also said, “The most competitive race is between America and our competitors around the world.... We can win the competition."

The tax deal won’t make that easier.

Here Comes the Farm Bill

A new farm bill is expected in 2012, which means 2011 will put us right back into the thick of the debate about reforming U.S. farm policy. Bread for the World worked on farm bill reform in 2007-08. In the end, the bill that passed didn't look much like reform.  

Much has changed in farm country since then. The 2012 Hunger Report, which will come out in November 2011, will be about food and farm policy and have the obvious intent of influencing the farm bill debate. Over the next year, here at Institute Notes we'll be blogging regularly about issues related to the farm bill.

Currently one of the most interesting farm-bill issues to me - flying relatively quietly under the radar for now, but one that could emerge as a useful lever for reformers - is the extraordinary rising cost of farmland across the Midwest. We may be seeing an asset bubble building, mostly due to high grain prices and the effects of ethanol subsidies.

From the Wall Street Journal, came this ominous sounding editorial yesterday:

“The overall U.S. economy may be struggling, but you wouldn’t know it from a visit to the Farm Belt. A boom is under way across much of the rural Midwest, with agricultural land prices growing at a double-digit clip and farm auctions in certain counties fetching record sales.

“One question to ponder: Is this boom rooted in genuine economic gains, or is it another Federal Reserve-induced asset bubble? We lean toward the bubble view.

"After a very detailed analytical look at several economic variables, we hope Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is right when he says asset bubbles and price spikes in commodities are nothing to worry about. Of course, he said the same thing about housing and oil in the last decade. We’re not predicting an imminent bust, but we do hope someone at the Fed is watching prices grow in farm country.”

So what's this got to do with farm bill reform? Given how we got into the Great Recession, I think the expression "asset bubble" has about as toxic a connotation as you can get these days. The Journal editorial seems to be putting the blame on the Fed Chairman, but the real reason for the asset bubble are the government policies designed to prop up wealthy farmers and ethanol blenders, which have the knock on effect of articifically elevating the land values where the subsidies are going. If the bubble bursts, or rather when the bubble bursts, that means everyone living in those areas will suffer the effects. 

I believe this can be a lever for reformers to grab onto.

Rural Poverty Report

In the 2011 Hunger Report, Our Common Interest, Bread for the World Institute featured an articleby the President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Dr. Kanayo Nwanze.  Now IFAD has just released a new report, The Rural Poverty Report 2011, and it is definitely worth a look.  

IFAD is one of the best sources in the world if you want to understand hunger and poverty and particularly its rural dimensions. There are 1.4 billion people in the world who are in extreme poverty, living on $1.25 per day or less, and most reside in rural areas, earning their living as small farmers or agricultural labors.

Among the topics covered in the Rural Poverty Report 2011:

  • the size, scope and consequences of rural poverty on a global scale, and particularly its impact on young people and their prospects for the future.
  • linkages between the goals of eradicating rural poverty and ensuring food security for a growing population.
  • the challenges to rural people posed by the effects of escalating natural resources constraints and climate change, and how they can be effectively addressed.
  • how poor people’s inability to access agricultural markets contributes to their poverty, and what can be done to expand their access. 
  • the role of sustainable agriculture and other modern farming practices in enabling smallholder farmers to increase yields, cope with (and indeed help resolve) critical environmental challenges, and be a part of the solution to the challenge of feeding the world’s rapidly growing population.
  • the need to improve the overall environment of rural areas – better infrastructure, better governance, and better education, health and financial services – to make them places where people can find greater opportunities and face fewer risks.Country

Don't Forget SNAP

Before the USDA’s annual survey of food security in the United States was released last month, I was expecting the hunger rate in 2009 to be much worse than 2008. Given the surge in unemployment in 2009, it seemed likely to me that hunger would get worse. Fortunately, I was wrong.

By now, it's old news that enrollment in the SNAP program grew dramatically in 2009, as it always does during recessions, and this certainly helped to contain hunger.

SNAP benefits also increased as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). A family of 4 received an average monthly benefit increase of $80.  This was crucial to staving off hunger because before the SNAP increase in ARRA, almost 90 percent of households had exhausted their SNAP benefits by the third week of the month.

Congress and the administration have been contemplating paring back these benefits in the interests of deficit reduction. It’s exactly the wrong thing to do when unemployment stubbornly hovers near 10 percent. It may be that extending the SNAP benefits that were part of ARRA will come down to a deal that guarantees defitict-busting tax cuts to very wealthy people.  I guess it's just the poor that are expected to do the serious belt tightening to help reduce the deficit. To pay for improvements in the “Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act” (Child Nutrition Reauthorization) that passed last week, Congress determined the price is to strip $2.2 billion from SNAP.  Child Nutrition Reauthorization passed with these SNAP cuts, and while we celebrated this we also recognized that these cuts cannot stand. The administration has pledged to “fix” this. We celebrate Child Nutrition Reauthorization because we expect the administration to live up to its pledge.

SNAP puts more money into the economy than it takes out because with every food purchase the benefits go directly back into the economy, unlike tax cuts for high-income earners who mostly save these benefits, providing very little stimulus to the economy.  

Students Wait for News on DREAM Act Vote

What a week! It’s kept everyone on the edge of their seats and the Capitol switchboard flooded with calls as people wonder whether Congress will pass the DREAM Act during its lame-duck session. The bill is presumed to go up for a vote this week in the House after much consideration and a number of newly drafted versions. The new drafts are an attempt to gain bipartisan support and to soothe concerns that the DREAM Act is simply another “amnesty bill.”

The new versions also include a stringent process students must follow that includes background checks and a longer waiting period to be eligible for legal permanent residency from 6 to 10 years.  Few hints have been given on what version of the bill will be up for a vote in either chamber, and the Senate has not determined when it will vote on the DREAM Act.

It’s also unclear whether the support the DREAM Act has garnered—from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano—will be enough to persuade Congress to pass the bill.

Republicans’ broad opposition is evident, as 42 Republican senators have signed a letter saying they will not vote on anything until the expiring tax cuts and funding for the federal government are dealt with. Some have called this “extortion,” while Republicans say it is a way to get down to business.

Meanwhile, students around the country wait hopefully. Pedro Ramirez, student body president at Fresno State University, has admitted he is an unauthorized immigrant. This is an important admission because unauthorized immigrants live with many restrictions that limit their ability to advance regardless of their individual talents, work ethic, and dedication.  Unauthorized immigrants constantly live under the radar rather than risk exposure.  Jose Salcedo, a Miami Dade College student, revealed at a campus event that he is also unauthorized.  In the District of Columbia, 17-year-old Anngie Gutierrez would like to become a forensic investigator. Her hope is that the DREAM Act passes for her sake and that of her family.  These are just a few of thousands of stories that exist around the United States about students who are hoping to be in the U.S. legally and contribute to the U.S.

These bright, hard-working, and motivated students want to contribute to our society. They just need the opportunity.

We Made Progress Against Hunger Yesterday

Yesterday should have been an encouraging day for anyone who is appalled by the scandalous levels of child hunger in the United States. Yesterday, Congress passed the "Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act," aka Child Nutrition Reauthorization, and later in the day made critical changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit that will help low-income families be able to put food on the table. 

Passage of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization will increase government reimbursements for school meals, making this the first non-inflation adjusted increase in 30 years, and also helps pay for meals in after-school programs and child care settings. Moreover the bill gives the secretary of agriculture the authority to set nutrition standards in schools, making it possible to reduce the amount of junk foods sold there. This should be great news to anyone who supports First Lady Michele Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to reduce childhood obesity.

Improvements to the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit were included in the Middle Class Tax Relief Act of 2010. The Child Tax Credit lowers the eligibility threshold to $3,000 of annual income from $10,000, and the Earned Income Tax Credit expands to include greater support to married couples. These changes had been authorized as temporary expansions under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but the Middle Class Tax Relief Act will now make them permanent.  Both the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit have provided critical support to families struggling through the recession. In 2009, for example, the Earned Income tax Credit lifted 3.3 million children out of poverty, and according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, without the credit the child poverty rate would have risen by one-third.

Bread for the World campaigned for Child Nutrition Reauthorization and the improvements in the tax package so yesterday was a celebratory day for us.  It is always worth celebrating progress against hunger.



Launching the 2011 Hunger Report

At the launch of Bread for the World Institute’s 2011 Hunger Report, Our Common Interest: Ending Hunger and Malnutrition, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah called the report, “the best statement he’s read about the importance of Feed the Future to U.S. efforts to combat global hunger and malnutrition.”

20101122_HungerReportLaunch_073F2b The launch of the report took place at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on November 22nd and featured a panel discussion that included Shah, Inger Andersen, Vice President of Sustainable Development for the World Bank, Carolyn Miles, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Save the Children, and David Beckmann, President of Bread for the World and Bread for the World Institute. The panel was moderated by Roger Thurow, a senior fellow on global agriculture and food policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

In his remarks, Dr. Shah added, "The 2011 Hunger Report aptly reminds us that in order to tackle the root causes of hunger and malnutrition, we need to invest in smallholder farmers and focus on integrating nutrition and agriculture development through a country-led approach." Shah used the occasion of the launch to unveil USAID’s new Bureau of Food Security, “charged with driving the collective action necessary to end world hunger.”

David Beckmann praised Shah and other members of the Obama administration for their leadership, focusing much needed attention on food security programming and development more broadly. He also praised the Bush administration’s leadership, reminding everyone there that hunger is not a partisan issue. 

20101122_HungerReportLaunch_163Fb Carolyn Miles emphasized the lifelong consequences of malnutrition on young children, drawing special attention to the first 1,000 days of life, when good nutrition is most critical to human development. Save the Children has been extremely helpful to Bread for the World Institute on trips to parts of the world where the effects of  malnutrition on children can be seen in stark terms. In the 2011 report, a visit to a therapeutic feeding center for children in rural Ethiopia with Save staff is described.  

Much of the panel's discussion focused on volatile food prices, echoing a major issue in the report. The rise in food prices from 2007-08 illustrated how vulnerable poor people are to such fluctuations. The problem has hardly gone away. US$ wheat prices rose more than 70% in five weeks this summer. Corn prices swung through a 30% up and down cycle in a 7 day period in the last month.

“Volatility in food prices is deeply troubling for those living in poverty,” remarked Inger Anderson.  “Traditionally even the poorest countries have been able to count on stable and low international food prices to import enough food to handle local shocks.  That changed in late 2007 and has not come back. Continuing international food price volatility has underscored the vulnerability of poor countries to unpredictable local events.”

Roger Thurow underscored the opportunity that Feed the Future presents andthat this was an important message  highlighted in the report. “It is in our common interest – far above the divisions of politics and the tensions of budget cuts -- to reverse the neglect of agriculture development, to push for progress against hunger and malnutrition and to avoid a repeat of the food crisis.  To squander this historic moment would be our common tragedy.”



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