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The Therapy Sessions
Sunday, November 21, 2004

Hunger in America

Hunger affected 12 million families in 2003
WASHINGTON (AP) -- More than 12 million families last year, about the same as in 2002, either didn't have enough food or worried about being able to feed everyone, the government reported Friday.

In about one-third of these 12.6 million families, or about 3.9 million, at least one member experienced hunger because he or she couldn't afford enough food at some time during the last year, said the annual Agriculture Department report.

These stories come around every year as the winter approaches.

If you are appalled by people who "blame the victim," read no further.

I have seen real poverty. I have seen children with hair so brittle that it practically breaks when you touch it; children with bellies swollen with worms, and arms shrunken by malnutrition.

West Africa has the kind of poverty that makes you cry, and it makes you look at American "poverty" with a skeptical eye.

By calling these Americans poor, we insult the world's truly poor.

American poor have clean running water and electicity in their heated homes, and access to health care - treatment with the latest medicines and procedures - when they get sick. Almost all of the American poor have TV's, VCR's, microwaves, stereos and fashionable clothes. All have access to schools and libraries. Most have cars, and most have jobs. Their biggest health problem is obesity.

This is not to say that they live problem free. Most poor households are, naturally, single parent households (illegitimacy is the largest factor in creating American "poverty"). Many suffer from addiction, and almost all failed to take advantage of the educational opportunites offered to them (and schools packed with their children - who similarly lack educational ambition - can't help but be bad).

But the fact remains that the average American black - generally considered to be the poorest American ethnic group - is about as well off as the average person in Sweden, a country generally considered to one of the wealthiest in Europe.
Higher GDP per capita allows the average American to spend about $9,700 more on consumption every year than the average European. So Yanks have by far more cars, TVs, computers and other modern goods. "Most Americans have a standard of living which the majority of Europeans will never come anywhere near," the Swedish study says.

But what about equality? Well, the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line has dropped to 12% from 22% since 1959. In 1999, 25% of American households were considered "low income," meaning they had an annual income of less than $25,000. If Sweden -- the very model of a modern welfare state -- were judged by the same standard, about 40% of its households would be considered low income.

In other words poverty is relative, and in the U.S. a large 45.9% of the "poor" own their homes, 72.8% have a car and almost 77% have air conditioning, which remains a luxury in most of Western Europe. The average living space for poor American households is 1,200 square feet. In Europe, the average space for all households, not just the poor, is 1,000 square feet.

In most of the world, what we call American poverty would be recognized as wealth. Such talk naturally inflames liberals, who believe that the presence of American "poverty" somehow indicts American society.

But what of this hunger? Is it to be believed?

Sadly, yes. I believe there is hunger in America.

But I don't think its because there isn't enough food. Americans have some of the cheapest food in the world. People die trying to get into this country, a place were the greatest health problem afflicting the poor is obesity.

American hunger exists because of simple home economics: Americans are terrible at stretching the value of a dollar. For people trying to get by on low incomes, this inability to eat cheaply leads to eventual - but no prolonged - hunger.

Americans love their processed and pre-prepared foods.

My wife and I were once doing some volunteer work at a shelter for homeless families. We took a lasagna and a salad, and a woman who went with us took a ham. A few of the families present ate some of the food we brought, but several preferred to eat from the own fridge: it was stocked with frozen foods and soda, including store-bought, individually wrapped rotisserie chicken pieces that I considered too expensive to serve my own family. They wrappers from McDonald's and KFC in the garbage. And they had bakery-made cake for desert.

People who eat like that - in addition to getting obese - are going run short of funds once in a while.

I once posted similar thoughts on "American hunger," and I was challenged by a reader. Why don't you try to feed a family of four on $10 a day, he challenged me.

I did it.

The result was not the menu with all the extravagant trimmings that Americans have grown used to. It was basic but nutritionally sound.

Our grandmothers knew this kind of thing without thinking, but leave it to our society to have to re-learn it.

The best thing this nation could do with its "poor" is to mandate that food stamps only be used for basic staples (no potato chips or frozen pizzas).

And they should mandate that anyone who accepts food stamps should pass a home economics course.

Just a thought.

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