It’s Hunger Season Again! Fa La La La La! or BAH HUMBUG?

CharitableCollectionsNovember marks the beginning of what is sometimes cynically referred to as “Hunger Season.” No, it’s not officially the beginning of open-season on hungry people, though these days it can seem like that. And it has nothing to do with the “Hunger Games”. Hunger Season occurs during the holiday months of November and December and is the annual period in which the media (God bless them) have historically trotted out their favorite “help the less fortunate” stories and promotions.

During Hunger Season we see a proliferation of corporate food drives, and collections of food, clothing and other necessities for delivery to chosen charitable organizations. And it would be very wrong to suggest that these “feel good” efforts, many largely aimed at providing ways for the “more fortunate” to assuage their collective guilt and shame at tolerating the obscene levels of economic injustice and inequality that have become the defining characteristics of the US economy, are all bad.

But this year’s Hunger Season has an added dimension that is truly and deeply disturbing. The cumulative impacts of the unprecedented state of dysfunction and political polarization in the US Congress, the continuing sequestration, and the recent government shut-down have all combined with a very anemic and slow recovery from the Great Recession to make this Hunger Season into a literal, if undeclared, open season on hungry people.

This September, amid stubbornly persevering hopes for improved economic conditions, and for some positive action from our stalemated Congress, USDA/ERS managed to release its annual report on Food Security in the US before its website was shut down along with the rest of the US government. In this year’s report, 49.0 million Americans, including 15.6 million children, were reported living in households struggling with hunger, i.e., that were food insecure in 2012. While these data show a slight (but not statistically significant) decrease in overall food insecurity from 50.1 million Americans in food insecure households in 2011, the numbers have remained consistently high since food insecurity rates increased sharply in the first year of the Great Recession that began in December 2007.

While food insecurity rates remain alarmingly high, it is a relief to many of us that they have not increased further as the nation’s economy continues to limp along in its struggle to recover from being run down by the run-away train that US financial markets have become. The fact that they haven’t is a testament to the effectiveness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – formerly the Food Stamp Program), which responded quickly to rising unemployment rates just as it was designed to. A number of recent studies have shown that SNAP helped prevent food insecurity from increasing even further as the recession’s effects persisted.

A quick look at the unemployment impacts of the Great Recession highlight the importance of SNAP. When the recession officially began in December 2007 there were 7.6 million workers unemployed (seasonally adjusted numbers); by its official end in June 2009 there were 14.7 million unemployed. But the official end of the Great Recession regrettably did not signal the end of increasing unemployment. After dipping slightly in July 2009, unemployment continued its upward trend for most of the following year, staying above 15 million during 8 months of that year, and above 14 million through December 2010. The number unemployed in October 2013 (latest data available) was still 4.0 million above the number in November 2007, the month before the recession officially began almost five years ago.

But these unemployment data, as bad as they are, are deceptively up-beat. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) points out that when you add the number of workers who have temporarily dropped out of the labor force because they can’t find work, the number working part time though they want to be working full time, and the number of “discouraged workers” who have dropped out of the labor force altogether with no hope of ever finding work, there are nearly 22 million people unemployed or underemployed. Moreover, 4.1 million of the 11.3 million people officially unemployed in October 2013 were “long-term unemployed”, who had been looking for work for 27 weeks or more.

Not only did participation in SNAP increase during the recession, but the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA, the stimulus package) raised SNAP benefit amounts across the board by approximately 13.6 percent. Even though USDA reported that the ARRA benefit increase was eroded by rising food prices, Children’s HealthWatch found in 2011 that the ARRA benefit increase still had a positive effect on child health. SNAP is a “two-fer”. It reduces and prevents food insecurity and its many negative health impacts, and it stimulates economic activity by increasing demand for food and enabling families to use other resources to pay rent, or utility bills, or for needed health care or medicine.

Dangers of increasing food insecurity loom however, since the ARRA boost ran out in early November causing benefit cuts across the board, and Congress seems bent on further cutting funding for SNAP in its Farm Bill “negotiations”. Our message to Congress (and anyone else who cares about child health and well-being) is that cuts to SNAP, which protects many children from food insecurity, have very real consequences for child health. Food insecurity is dangerous because it jeopardizes children’s health, growth, and development, as Children’s HealthWatch research and that of many other researchers has shown over the years. We summarize a good part of that research evidence in a commentary recently appearing in the Lancet, a highly respected international peer-reviewed medical journal.

We see food insecurity and hunger as forms of “toxic stress” which, like domestic violence, child abuse, chronic neglect, and other hardships that accompany poverty, lead to build-up of stress hormones and other chemicals produced by our bodies in response to that stress. This “allostatic load” is part of the cumulative wear and tear on physical and mental health caused by toxic stress. It can damage the brain architecture of young developing children, and lead to physical and mental health problems later in life.

So as we move into Hunger Season, please remember that poverty and food insecurity make it difficult for children to achieve school-readiness, and the levels of educational attainment needed to succeed in today’sworld. If our goal was to create millions of physically and mentally impaired children each year, there would be no more effective way to do that than to keep them food insecure throughout their childhood. But what civilized nation would possibly want to do such a destructive and self-defeating thing?