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COLUMN-A paradox of plenty - hunger in America: Bernd Debusmann

(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

WASHINGTON, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Call it a paradox of plenty. In the world's wealthiest country, home to more obese people than anywhere else on earth, almost 50 million Americans struggled to feed themselves and their children in 2008. That's one in six of the population. Millions went hungry, at least some of the time. Things are bound to get worse.

This the bleak picture drawn from an annual survey on "household food security" compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and released in mid-November. It showed the highest level of food insecurity since the government started the survey, in 1995, and provided a graphic illustration of the effect of sharply rising unemployment.

This year's picture will be even bleaker - the unemployment rate more than doubled from the beginning of 2008 to now, at 10.2 percent the highest in a quarter century. It is still climbing, and for many the distance between losing a job and lack of food security is very short.

In keeping with the American predilection for euphemisms, the word "hunger" does not appear in the report which classes food security into several categories, from "marginal" and "low" to "very low." Marginal food security means, in the lexicon of the USDA, "anxiety over food shortages or shortage of food in the house." The second category, low, means "reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet," but not necessarily less food.

The most severe category, "very low," used to be labelled "food insecurity with hunger" and is defined as "disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake." That applied to around 17 million people, up from 12 million in 2007. Black and Hispanic families and single-parent households are the most affected.

It is not the kind of hunger -- think African famines, skeletal babies with distended bellies -- that brought world leaders to a U.N. food summit in Rome this month to boost aid from rich countries for agricultural development in the Third World. The U.S. is a land of plenty, so much so that a study by the University of Arizona a few years ago found that the average household wastes about 14 percent of their food purchases.

Food is so abundant that overeating is more of a problem, numerically and in terms of public health, than under-nutrition. The Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based advocacy group, makes the point that "poverty can make people more vulnerable to hunger as well as obesity," one of the reasons being that food high in calories is cheaper than healthy food. For many Americans, hunger and obesity are two sides of the same poverty coin.

(International health statistics put the United States at the top of the obesity league. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight and a third of these are obese.)

INEQUALITY OF THIRD WORLD PROPORTIONS

Vicki Escarra, head of Feeding America, a hunger relief charity that runs 200 food banks in the U.S., has likened the growing difficulties of those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder to conditions in the Third World. She is right in more ways than one.

The USDA report reflects inequality of Third World proportions. While the Great Recession has culled the ranks of American millionaires -- by 22 percent according to a September study by the Boston Consulting Group -- the gap between rich and poor is not shrinking.

Last year, according to a report by the census bureau, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans made 11.4 times more than those living on the poverty line. The year before, the ratio was 11.2. At the far end of the economic scale, America's six largest bank holdings have set aside $112 billion in salaries and bonuses during the first nine months of the year. By year's end, bonuses might exceed the almost $164 billion paid in 2007, before the credit bubble banks had helped to inflate burst and millions of Americans lost their jobs and savings.

Banks and other financial institutions were rescued by a $700 billion infusion of taxpayer money and news of the bonuses coincided with reports that U.S. wages were at a 19-year low. Which helps explain growing anger among a public long famous for lacking the resentment of the rich that is common in other parts of the world.

After all, a bedrock belief in America held that this is the land of unlimited opportunities where every citizen has an equal chance to succeed and become rich. That requires an assumption that the system is fair. How many Americans still believe that? Last summer, a pair of political scientists, Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs, published a study whose findings included that just 28 percent thought the present distribution of wealth is fair.

More evidence that the gap between myth and reality is shrinking comes from the American Human Development project, a research group which found that "social mobility is now less fluid in the United States than in other affluent nations...a poor child born in Germany, France, Canada or one of the Nordic countries has a better chance to join the middle class in adulthood than an American child born into similar circumstances."

A better chance to avoid food insecurity, too. (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)

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