Driving into the nation’s capital along New York Avenue reveals an American social smash-cut. About three miles from the U.S. Capitol, women with umbrella strollers, heavy bags and a hand-chain of children in tow are dodging traffic to cross the busy Northeast Washington thoroughfare. Especially early in the morning, they walk in waves, with school-uniform skirts and baby fleece blankets flapping in the back wind of the traffic roaring by.
Jefferson County, Mississippi, is home to 7,297 people, and 2,870 of them are hungry. The county’s food insecurity rate, 38 percent, is the highest in the nation, according to the latest Map the Meal Gap report. The report, released last week by the hunger relief organization Feeding America, collates data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Current Population Survey to stitch together a portrait of food insecurity at the state and county levels.
When Representative Mo Brooks said it was unfair that healthy “people who lead good lives” should have to subsidize the insurance of unhealthier ones who presumably don’t, he bluntly raised an often unspoken question that runs through policy debates in Washington: Who deserves government aid and who does not?
Stephanie Land had next to nothing when she checked into a Port Townsend, Washington, homeless shelter with her baby daughter Mia almost nine years ago. Fleeing an abusive relationship, she had no family to turn to, no job and only about $200 to her name.
In the 1890s, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois noticed something disturbing about how Americans viewed the plight of blacks in Philadelphia who had suffered through unsanitary living conditions, high rates of consumption and back-breaking labor. “The most difficult social problem in the matter of Negro health is the peculiar attitude of the nation toward the well-being of the race,” he wrote. “There have, for instance, been few other cases in the history of civilized peoples where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.”
Iyoba Moshay had just started her shift when she got a text from Alvin, her 7th-grade son. His school was on lockdown after a shooting, he said. There was a body prone on the street outside, visible from his classroom window. Ms. Moshay gulped, and went back to her job tending bar downtown at the Houston Astros’ stadium. It was the second shooting that month near the school, which has an F grade from Texas regulators. For Moshay, a single mother, it was one more reason to wish she could move to a different part of town, far from the crime and poverty of her all-minority neighborhood.
Hunger in America can often seem invisible, but recent studies have shown that it is a problem that affects millions of people, many of them children. An estimated 13.1 million kids live in homes with insufficient food, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the number of college students struggling with hunger has prompted more campuses to open food pantries. Seniors and people with disabilities also suffer from hunger, and federal money for programs like Meals on Wheels may face cuts under President Trump’s proposed budget.
There’s nothing shocking, really, about Houston’s new law making it easier for homeless people to be arrested simply for being homeless. Not when over 100 American cities have effectively criminalized everyday life for the homeless, making crimes of things from sleeping outside to brushing teeth in public. Even as cities become more socially conscious about LGBTQ rights and drug policies, they’ve become less tolerant of their neediest inhabitants and more comfortable with cops and the justice system sweeping up the human trash, as it were.
“It’s pretty much life or death if you don’t have a degree for people like me,” says Brooke Evans. Most college students feel their degree is crucial, but the stakes are higher for Evans, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, because she’s been homeless for most of her college career. And she has dedicated her free time to improving college life for other low-income and homeless students. She proposed a plan to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of University Housing to get SNAP, also known as food stamps or food share, accepted as a form of payment in University of Wisconsin-Madison dining halls and food markets.
Most rich countries besides the US have hit on a surprisingly simple approach to reducing child poverty: just giving parents money. This idea, known as a child benefit or child allowance, exists in almost every EU country as well as in Canada and Australia. In many countries, the payments are truly universal; you get the money no matter how much you earn. In others, like Canada, the payments phase out for top earners but almost everyone else benefits. France has a weird scheme where only families with two or more children get benefits, as an incentive to have more kids.