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The End of Hunger in the United States: Within Reach?
The 2013 Hunger Report, Within Reach—Global Development Goals, focuses mainly on ending hunger and poverty in the developing world, but one chapter is about ending hunger and poverty in the United States. The message of the report is identical whether we’re talking about low-income or high-income countries: all countries need to set goals to make progress on hunger and poverty.
To U.S. policymakers, and particularly the president, we say: set a goal to end hunger in America within 10-15 years, and work cooperatively with Congress, state and local leaders, civil society, and others who are interested to develop a plan. In short, Mr. President, you need to lead, but you’ve got more partners who want to work with you on this than you can imagine.
The last time a president set a goal to end poverty in the United States was in 1964, when President Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” in the United States. Years later, President Reagan liked to say, “Poverty won,” but this verdict is unfair. The fact is that the poverty rate was cut in half between 1959 and 1974, thanks to a strong economy and new programs that Johnson and President Nixon, along with supportive members of Congress, established to strengthen the anti-poverty safety net.
The mid-1970s ushered in a rough time for the U.S. economy—a recession combined with inflation that was soon dubbed “stagflation.” I got my driver’s license during the oil crisis of 1979, and I remember cars queuing up, sometimes for hours, to get to the gas pump. This was in New York, where colorful language is part of the dialect, and some of the comments were nasty even by those standards.
The mid-1970s were a test of the country’s resolve in the War on Poverty. Before then, a strong economy had made progress look easy. Overall, the U.S. economy has proven resilient to these kinds of external shocks, but the same cannot be said of government leaders’ resolve to wage war on poverty.
According to economists at the University of Michigan, if the economy had continued growing at the same rate as it had been before the mid-70s, and the gains were equitably shared, poverty in the United States could have been eliminated by the early 1980s. As we know, this did not happen. The economy did in fact resume growing about as fast as before, but the productivity gains were no longer being shared as equitably. Low-wage workers were the first ones hit by this “new normal.” Over time, income inequality also began to affect middle-wage jobs. By the 2000s, wages were stagnant or eroding even for workers with a college degree.
In fairness to policymakers of this era, it is true that some improvements in the public safety net were made in an effort to offset the changing structure and growing inequality of the economy. These included, for example, increasing the Earned income Tax Credit for low-wage workers. The problem is that although government programs are able to help compensate for eroding wages, on balance they simply do not make up the difference.
Today, one out of four jobs in the country doesn’t pay enough to lift a family of four above the poverty line. When jobs don’t pay enough to lift families above the poverty line, we end up with lots of people known as “the working poor.” After the shocks in the 2000s, starting with the bursting of the stock bubble early in the decade and continuing with the housing bubble and the 2008 financial crisis, we need to ask ourselves whether the course we’re on is sustainable. It’s a question we asked in the 2008 and 2010 Hunger Reports, and we return to it again in the 2013 report.
Neither poverty nor hunger has to be an intractable problem. When there is political will to combat them, poverty and hunger are weaker enemies. Most recently, we’ve seen evidence of this in Britain. Of all the high-income nations, none is more like the United States. While child poverty rates in the United States were climbing in the 2000s, they were headed in the opposite direction in Britain. In fact, the British child poverty rate, when measured in absolute terms as we do here in the United States, was cut in half between 1999 and 2009. In the United States, the child poverty rate increased by 20 percent during the same time period.
What was it that drove the progress in Britain? We can point to several reforms that strengthened the anti-poverty safety net, but none of these would have occurred if the British prime minister in 1999, Tony Blair, had not publicly pledged to end child poverty within 20 years.
It has been a long time since U.S. policymakers could expect to be held accountable for improving the country’s performance on hunger and poverty, but setting and striving to achieve goals has roused the United States out of complacency before. Setting a goal could once again be a way to build consensus around a shared vision of the future—and the need for action to make this vision a reality.
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