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View from the bottom rung - Nov. 16, 2013

Somewhere there is a statistic that reports 80 percent of people in Africa live on less than $2 a day, 33 percent are hungry and each year over six million children under 5 die, most of them from malnutrition. Africa might not be the place one would migrate to, but then any wayfaring pilgrim contemplating coming to the U.S. might want to have second thoughts about that also.

A flyer recently delivered to my door by a local organization claiming to represent the charity “Feeding America” hints that hunger in America is near endemic – that for “one in six Americans in the U.S. hunger is real, that the problem is not confined to small pockets of society, certain areas across the country or certain neighborhoods, that in fact the reality is much different, millions of Americans are struggling with hunger it claims, with many hard working adults, children and seniors having difficulty making ends meet and are forced to go without food for several meals or even days at a time.”

Here in Arkansas, these statistics show almost 20 percent of the population nutritionally stressed - or should that be “potentially” stressed? Sure. Building on an historical model, the scripture says that the “Poor will always be with us” but almost 20 percent of the population of Arkansas and 12 to 15 percent of the nation under threat of starvation in a land flowing with milk and honey is shocking in the least, especially since the ordinary citizen sees little evidence of that on the street. To the contrary.

Some say that all this famine amongst plenty is the result of evil men practicing onerous politics, but there is a side to the coin which suggests the hunger statistics themselves may be driven by ulterior motivations - firstly politics, secondly in the case of charities the direr the hunger index the more generous the donations the more compassion flowing into the coffers. While I have no cause to question the conscience expressed by “Feeding America,” toward the less advantaged amongst us, ordinarily, along with a request for one’s personal generosity, charitable organizations are apt not to voluntarily disclose the percentage of alms collected which actually get to the hungry, or to whomever is the intended beneficiary. At least not up front.

Charities often fall far short of public accountability. This matters, because many are not really charities at all, since all but a small percentage of their collected funds go to “overhead” and paying management a generous wage. According to my understanding, in order to qualify for tax exempt charitable status, the organization must show a zero sum profit at years end and there are ways which that can be accomplished without paying a dime to the cause for which they petition. Any charity distributing less than 50 percent of its collected donations to the stated cause, (horror stories have some paying out as little as a couple of cents on the dollar) is failing its mission; near criminal by my estimation.

We do not ignore the fact that there are needy amongst us nor should we mock those whose passion it is to help them. But in a society beset with charlatans constantly trolling for suckers, convincing people to believe that the U.S. suffers from, or is on the verge of massive hunger, might be seen as overly advantageous to leveraging politicians on the one hand, and economically healthy to the office of an alms collector on the other. Saying that “food insecurity” here in Arkansas is almost 20 percent certainly hints that a fifth of the population may be going hungry every day.

One should not be so callous as to diminish the pain of people who struggle with the necessities of life, most working class people have been there, done that and can sympathize but there are reasons to believe that the problem of hunger in the “Garden of Eden” is overblown. While the flyer delivered to my stoop, paints a grim picture of working adults, seniors, and children forced to go without food for several meals or, “even days at a time” the World Health Organization couches the problem in somewhat gentler terms.

Here we find that one in a thousand adults and one in 10,000 children do not eat for one whole day on an average day. The causes for that are legion and one has only to read the daily police reports in his local newspaper to see the extent of the moral decay and lack of personal responsibility that drives much of it. Almost every community has outreach programs which identify and indemnify those who have slipped the social net. However, regretful as the statistic may be it does not paint a picture of a people suffering Stalingrad hunger.

In America people do not die of starvation especially they do not perish from hunger because of economic reason. Death from hunger is due primarily to eating disorders and are too rare to be recorded in mortality statistics. Ironically, there is a major ongoing nutritional problem that is of much more concern amongst America’s medical profession than hunger, and is give much more publicity by the nation’s media. The concern is that most Americans are overweight with more than a third of a million each year dying of obesity related diseases, from too much food not the lack of it.

Obesity is a problem clearly evident within the community, it is not hidden away, it does not have to be “advertised” as does hunger; it compasses us on every side. The difference is that politicians have left it pretty much alone to this point because people said to suffer hunger are much more sympathetic and easier to use for political leverage than those whose health risk is greater over the long haul for their appetite and eating habits, and can expect to suffer disease and shortened life-spans because of it.

There is a criterion for judging a nations nutrition and health: “The most prominent indicator of under nutrition is “stunting” or very low height for age. Among poor American children 0.7 percent fall below this low height threshold; By contrast the World Health Organization finds that among the children of Africa, 39 percent are stunted, in Asia the rate is 47 percent and in Latin America, 22 percent. By historic standards, according to the WHO, poor American children are giants as well; today low income boys at age 18 are one inch taller and ten pounds heavier than GI’s of world war two”. America may not be at the very top in nutritional health, a couple of smaller more manageable nations may hold that distinction but then we’re not exactly the stark picture of hunger some might want to paint.

The bleak picture of hunger in Eden is advanced against a social safety net that has 49 million of America’s 317 million citizens as recipients of a governmental food assistance program, plus there are various State and community outreach programs which exist across the country serving those who struggle with the basic necessities. Beneficiaries of the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program have risen 70 percent since 2009 spurred in part for political cause, in part because the nations unrelenting jobless rate remains above 7 percent five years running, (some say as high as 20), and because half the increase in beneficiaries is the result of eligibility requirements having been relaxed to include those who a few years ago would not qualify.

Each member of the working class which depend on a wage to sustain themselves, even in the best of times live one piece of hard luck away from bankruptcy. From that, one might argue one hundred percent of them are “financially insecure” in some fashion or other but the statistic is meaningless. There are no guarantees in life there are only odds, and the odds of 20 percent of Arkansans going to bed hungry tonight are nil. The term “food insecurity” needs be changed to something less political, less self-serving to charitable organizations, something other than hints that people are starving to death in Eden.

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