Beware the ‘Food’ Issue

If you want to get serious about income inequality, you have to start at its source—and many of the consequences of that start with the poor food in their bellies.

That’s the message that advocates for the poor have been pushing for a while, mainly in the form of the fact that food stamps and other government-run programs have been expanding, while private charity and the work of churches have been shrinking.

According to Charles Lea, president of the Chicago-based Private Industry Council on the poor (PIC), food pantries and soup kitchens are filling the gap, making up the gap, filling the gaps in government programs. He argues that food banks are a temporary lifeline, and that what’s needed is a long-term fix. “At the end of the day, it’s not about food,” he says. “It’s about jobs.”

He’s right, and yet…

How these two ideas fit together is sometimes confounding, and this editorial doesn’t go far enough in explaining how this puts people at risk.

In the face of growing economic inequality, advocates for the poor have made two crucial messages: One, private charity can fill in gaps in government assistance that inadequate welfare programs cannot. The second is that the poor eat badly, they don’t cook much, and they get by on less than they could get from government programs. The reality, however, is neither as simple as either assertion.

To start with, it’s true that poor households on average have more cash to spend, thanks to higher incomes and lower unemployment rates than have prevailed a decade ago. That means that food pantries and soup kitchens are filling holes in the government welfare system created by those employment increases.

But this wasn’t always true. For instance, SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the most popular food assistance program in the country—used to be designed around a certain level of consumer price inflation, because no food in the United States was as important as food in America, and people couldn’t “buy more than you need,” as the program was intended. But as unemployment rates dropped, food costs rose. Other programs were also cut or cut back, and the gap between income and food aid became ever-greater.

The challenge is that private charity could never provide for those who are working, but who need help most, like students trying to go to college, or those with medical problems, or just those who’ve fallen through the cracks.

Lea cites a study that showed that nearly one in ten people on assistance from PIC had actively “shopped” for food. How many of those tried the line at the fast-food restaurants? Maybe only a few, because they’d just as likely go to a farmer’s market for fresh produce, or a vegetarian restaurant. Lea insists this is unacceptable—but even that’s kind of important.

Of course, food banks are still there, and they’re necessary. So long as there’s food available, they’re there. The problem is that a majority of those with problems can’t do that—or, at least, that’s not always clear to anyone with a salary.

Yes, Americans today spend more on food, which is generally about twice as much as it was 40 years ago. But that’s not enough food, which means that the food budgets of many households are going even thinner.

Shelter on the street is also a problem, because while poor people are more likely to spend less on food than less-poor people, they’re also more likely to be poor than more-poor people. In places like New York City, for instance, the gap between rich and poor isn’t even statistically significant, but the glaring gap between the poorest households and the richest households is.

Don’t let the media get away with telling you that poverty is a food issue. It’s not. It’s a housing, health care, and employment issue. And that’s not a problem when private charities are giving the poor what they need, but it becomes a problem when they’re no longer that.

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