Last week, Feeding America released its Hunger in America report, a comprehensive examination on the current status of food access and security. The 161-page report reveals startling statistics on hunger in America, and details the dire state of a growing population of hungry Americans and the charities that serve them.
Feeding America, the country’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity, releases this report every four years, and this year’s numbers are bleak. The report revealed that 1 in 7 Americans face food insecurity; 16 percent of Feeding America charities risk closure due to lack of funds; 66 percent of Feeding America clients reported choosing between spending money on food and health care; and 25 percent of former military service members require food assistance.
While this report highlights the very real dangers facing those on the brink of hunger, these statistics have political ramifications as well. During Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) push for a new approach to poverty policy, he invoked charity as a realistic means to remedy the effects of economic disparities:
It is their intimate knowledge of the people they serve —as well as their ability to take the long view —that makes these groups so successful. They are more effective than distant federal bureaucracies for a simple reason: They don’t just relieve the pain of poverty; they give people the means to get out of poverty.”
Feeding America and similar organizations not only offer a safety net to vulnerable populations, but also to listless politicians resistant to muster any political will regarding issues of poverty and economic inequality.
The work of charities is woven into conservative rhetoric as a co-part to the bootstrap theory; frequently, politicians like Ryan suggest that the government need not and should not provide aid and individuals should simply “put on their boots”and seek out their own help from available organizations. Yet, as evident in the Hunger in America report, there is a widening gap between what charities are able to offer and what services people require.
The charity apparatus provides supplementary food, money, shelter and other necessities when people cannot, for whatever reason, access these services on their own. When charity initiatives are used not just to provide supplementary assistance, but as a substitution for political action and policy, a la Ryan, charities overextend themselves, and our government fails to achieve its most basic democratic purpose — to serve the people.
These shifts in the charity paradigm can be seen in virtually every cause, even the viral ALS ice bucket challenge. While raising a staggering $62.5 million, this success comes in the wake of unprecedented cuts to medical research for countless diseases, including ALS. Shifting the burden of serving millions of Americans in need of food, shelter, or scientific research onto charities is not only weak policy, but it is also unsustainable. Feeding America will not be able to lift people out of poverty, like Ryan wishes, if it ceases to exist. It is thus time politicians at the federal and state level take charge on these issues, or else there may soon be no more charities to call on.
Maura Hallisey is a 2013 graduate of Connecticut College where she studied Film Studies, Sociology, and Public Policy, with a concentration of gender in the media. She currently works at a history museum in Hartford, CT and is a fanatic of running, biking and sharks.