A friend recently assisted at a local food pantry on Mount Desert Island, and she was shocked to learn that the pantry had distributed more than $6,000 in food vouchers during that Sunday alone. Many working-class residents of our small community have been struck by a perfect storm, an unprecedented increase in food prices combined with deterioration of the labor market. As with Hurricane Katrina, this storm presents two divergent options.
Some view the hungry as victims of economic forces beyond their control. Unfortunately, however, too many citizens and legislators portray the hungry as miscreants whose lack of discipline and foresight occasioned their distress. At best they deserve only our pity or assistance laced with large quantities of moral guidance and personal reconstruction.
The hungry-as-miscreants idea, long prominent in our culture, is especially problematic today. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points out that the days of cheap food may be behind us. The cost of basic foodstuffs has doubled or tripled during just a few years. The causes of this escalation are not the food preferences of the poor but rather public policy choices that have greased the skids for the wealthy. There is the vast public subsidy of the ethanol boondoggle that has greatly increased the cost of agricultural land. And then the occupation of Iraq playing a major role in the increase in oil prices, which in turn increase food costs.
At the same time, the job market that is supporting the working class is collapsing. The unemployment rate surged to 5.1 percent in March. Though the most recent jobs report indicated that "only" 20,000 jobs were lost, long-term prospects are bleak. Economist Dean Baker points out that "with real wages declining, and the plunge in house prices destroying home equity at more than a $2.5 trillion annual rate, it is likely that the rate of job loss will accelerate in the months ahead."
Any food pantry may well serve a few residents who have made improvident choices, but for most, the constraints imposed by rising prices of necessities and a collapsing job market impose insuperable obstacles. And why some conservative commentators focus on the purported moral or intellectual limitations of the poor is mystifying. More media and public scrutiny should be directed toward the other end of the social spectrum. Wealthy financial houses and mortgage brokers have dragged the rest of us down even as they walk away with awesome severance packages.
The Federal Reserve, concerned about the possible collapse of the U.S. financial system, has now extended short-term loan privileges to large and unregulated investment banks. The production and marketing of complex and deceptive mortgage-backed securities by this unregulated shadow banking system substantially exacerbated the current meltdown.
The Fed will, nonetheless, accept as collateral from these investment banks much of the same commercial paper that the private market has steadfastly rejected. It will even do so without imposing the capital and other requirements that the Fed demands of conventional commercial banks where most of us hold our checking and savings accounts.
Meanwhile Congress does all too little to enhance the humble food stamp program, a task at least as worthy as a Fed bailout of Bear Stearns. One columnist for The Independent, a London newspaper, recently lamented the "steady decline in real [food stamp] benefits since 1996, when the 'standard deduction' for living costs, which is subtracted from family income to determine eligibility and benefit levels, was frozen. If that deduction had continued to rise with inflation, the average mother with two children would be receiving an additional $37 a month."
Boosts to the food stamp program are justified practically as well as morally. As Andrew Levine points out in Salon, "The attraction of food stamps is that, unlike cutting a check ... to every American, increasing their value doesn't require goosing cumbersome IRS machinery into motion. ... Food stamps are administered through debit cards - at the flip of an electronic switch benefits can be boosted, with the advantage of being perfectly targeted at those most likely to need help in an economic downturn ... Every dollar invested by the government in food stamps results in $1.84 in economic activity."
Maine food pantries are going to face an increasing burden in the next year. Hungry neighbors are fortunate that there is a community willing to extend assistance to those in need without casting aspersions on their judgment or morality. Food security, however, should be a fundamental right not dependent on the good will of neighbors. At the very least, the next stimulus package, needed soon, should greatly enhance the food stamp program.