Billionaires and the starving

Oct 28, 2013

Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist who himself grew up in semi-poverty, noted over the weekend that the United States is seeing a rapid explosion of billionaires – and of children who are going to school hungry. Not surprisingly, the hungry children part of the equation is truer in Michigan than in most other states.

In fact, one quarter of our children are now below the poverty line, which, by the way, is currently $23,550 for a family of four.

If you have any idea how four people can survive on that amount, you are smarter than I am. That number, by the way, has gone up more than five percent over the last six years.

The Great Recession may officially be over, and bank profits and the stock market are skyrocketing. But there’s very little sign of that affecting those who are poor. Actually, things have been getting worse for them, and are about to get worse still in Michigan.

Last week I heard from Judy Putnam, who is with the Michigan League for Public Policy. She told me that on Friday, the government is going to cut food aid for the poor by what, for our theoretical family of four, will amount to $36 a month.

That will affect 1.8 million Michiganders. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than half a million Michigan households suffer hunger at some point during the year.

That’s way over a million people. Yet we are now going to further cut food assistance.  Charles Blow, an elegant Louisianan who I spent some time with earlier this year, calls the present situation “an obscene balance that is unsustainable.”

Being a native Detroiter, I would be more inclined to say, “are we crazy, or what?”  Things may be about to get even worse for the poor. Thanks to the so-called jobless recovery, the number of people in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is at near-record highs. This is what we used to call food stamps.

And Congress is about to slash funding for it. The Senate version of the long-stalled farm bill would cut four billion dollars from food aid to the poor. But the version passed by the Republican-controlled house cuts 40 billion.

Now, they are trying to compromise on how many millions of the poor will be kicked off food assistance. Inflation-adjusted Cash assistance benefits for the nation’s poorest families, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, are at least 20 percent below what they were in 1996. To quote myself, are we crazy, or what?  

You would think that even if we were utterly devoid of compassion, we would realize that these policies make no sense.

Charles Blow concluded his column by saying that “the growing imbalance of both wealth and opportunity cannot be sustained. Something has got to give.” When you look at history, it is pretty clear that either we start to redress that balance, or eventually forces beyond our control may do it for us. And that is unlikely to be pretty.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.