Columnist Andrew Morehouse: Consider joining Coalition to End Hunger

  • Congressman Richard Neal, D-Springfield, from left, Easthampton Mayor Karen Cadieux, The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts Executive Director Andrew Morehouse, Easthampton Community Center Executive Director Robin Bialecki and state Sen. Donald Humason Jr., R-Westfield, talk during August at the Easthampton mobile food bank. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Sunday, December 31, 2017

I fear that the United States has conceded defeat in the War on Poverty. There was scant talk about poverty from either of the two major presidential candidates during last year’s election.

I haven’t heard much from Washington since then. The only promise in the recently passed tax bill just signed into law is the “trickle down” argument that didn’t pan out after the last major tax reform of the 1980s. The American dream of upward mobility for most of the poor and even working families has become just that — a dream.

From my vantage point, hunger and food insecurity — not knowing where your next meal will come from — are not only symptoms of poverty, but they have become the new and lower denominator of deprivation acceptable to society before we feel compelled to act out of charity, if not moral outrage.

According to the 2016 U.S. Census, while poverty has declined in the last two years, the current poverty rate (12.7 percent) is about the same as it was in 2007, the year before the Great Recession. This means that 40.6 million people still live in poverty in this country — that’s one in every eight people.

Accentuating this reality, 31,000 more households across Massachusetts go hungry now than in 2007, according to the federal government’s tracking of food insecurity. In western Massachusetts, the spike in food assistance that became necessary during the Great Recession hasn’t subsided significantly after almost a decade. On the contrary, it’s climbed to a high plateau and remained there.

In the last 12 months, the Food Bank distributed the equivalent of 8.9 million meals to approximately 223,000 individuals — most are children, elders, people with disabilities and veterans.

A growing number of people seeking food assistance are hard-working individuals trying to feed their families on a minimum wage or near minimum wage. In fact, most Americans have little savings and are a paycheck or two away from food and economic hardship.

Hunger is the canary in the coal mine because households that cannot afford food are also struggling to pay their rent (or mortgage), utilities, transportation, child care, health bills … and the list goes on.

Making matters worse is our very tattered public safety net, which is supposed to catch vulnerable households from falling into deep poverty. The fact of the matter is that the federal government and the commonwealth of Massachusetts spend far less now in real terms than they did in the past on basic public assistance. Because of this, for example, there is now a 14-year waiting list for a Section 8 housing subsidy for households that cannot afford market-rate rents. And, there’s a shortage of affordable housing stock.

With so many fellow citizens already in dire straits, I worry about what lies ahead with talk of “entitlement reform,” a euphemism for deep cuts to social programs to offset the projected $1.45 trillion deficit over the next decade due to the new tax law. Our nation’s historic federal nutrition programs, including SNAP and school meals, are on the chopping block.

Reform is good when and if most people benefit. Unfortunately, further whittling away at social programs will only further weaken our country. Smart reforms would invest in glide paths of support for families to transition successfully from poverty to jobs at incomes that both sustain them and generate tax revenue to repay their debt of gratitude for public support. Instead, existing policies impose cliffs that abruptly cut off supports and trap the poor in the vicious cycle of poverty and dependency on public assistance.

With even a weaker public safety net, there is no way the Food Bank will be able to feed everyone who needs food if our nation’s federal nutrition programs are gutted and we experience another major recession. If that happens, what will be the next lowest acceptable common denominator of deprivation?

Feeding families alone will not end hunger. Rather than accepting the status quo, the Food Bank has facilitated the birth of a Coalition to End Hunger to address the underlying causes of hunger. We are not Pollyannaish to think that we can achieve our goal overnight. It will take time and effort.

As an intelligent and compassionate citizenry, we must work together to shape smart policies and public-private collaborations that invest holistically in the future of households aspiring to realize the American dream rather than paying the cost of ignoring the obstacles they face day in and day out.

We must also listen to the real, not stereotyped, stories of people who want to get ahead in life and who yearn for a hand up instead of a handout. Most of us know someone with this lived experience. They are our neighbors, co-workers, fellow parishioners and the people who provide us with the goods and services that we rely on as a society.

We invite you to join the Coalition to End Hunger.

Andrew Morehouse is executive director of The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield.