We think of ourselves as the greatest nation on earth, but there are things that should make us wonder. Chief among these is the fact that here in the United States, growing numbers of people can’t afford that most basic of necessities: food.
More Americans said they struggled to buy food in 2011 than in any year since the financial crisis, according to a recent report from the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit research group. Almost one out of every five people, according to Gallup pollsters, couldn’t always afford to feed everyone in their family in 2011.
One might assume that number got smaller wrapped up with the national unemployment rate falling for several consecutive months. In actuality, the reverse proved true: the number of people who said they couldn’t afford food just kept rising and rising.
The findings from FRAC highlight what many people already know: The economic recovery, in theory now more than two years old, has done little to keep millions of Americans out of poverty and deprivation. Incomes for many haven’t kept pace with the cost of living, and for a large numbers of people in this country, things today are as bad as ever, or worse.
Forty-six million people lived below the poverty line as of 2010, a record number, according to the Census Bureau, and one that’s not even as high as some other estimates would have it. Take a further step back and the situation appears even more dire. About 45 percent of people in the U.S. have reported not being able to cover their basic living expenses, including food, shelter and transportation.
The official poverty rate is about 15 percent, but over two-fifths of Americans have so little saved that one financial emergency is all it would take to put them in poverty, according to the Corporation for Enterprise Development.
These high rates of financial insecurity — a consequence of the weak job market, and the prevalence of jobs that don’t pay very well — are making themselves felt at the level of everyday spending.
Recently, for example, a Center for Housing Policy study found that a growing number of middle-income owners and renters are paying more than half their earnings just to keep a roof over their heads. And as of 2009, almost one in five Americans over 50 years old were skipping on doctor visits, switching to cheaper medications, or forgoing some medicines entirely out of financial necessity, according to a recently published study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a think tank.
As for widespread hunger of the kind recorded by FRAC, research shows that the entire country ends up paying one way or another. While the people who can’t afford food are obviously suffering the worst, the social costs incurred — from the money spent to keep food pantries open to the lifelong diminished earning power of impoverished children — come to about $167 billion a year, or $542 for every man, woman and child in the country.