The late, great American writer and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich once spent more than a year undercover describing the dark underside of America: those who survive on minimum wage, or less. The result was a book that changed my life (and, I am sure, the lives of many others), titled Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.
Her book became a classic of social justice literature. Ehrenreich crossed America working as a waitress, a maid, those living at the bottom of the labour force. Her quest was to give those people a voice.
Extreme poverty means hopelessness and despair. More than 38 million Americans suffer hunger every day, including 16.2 million children – or one in six children. Most Americans are working harder than ever, but still struggling to make ends meet and just buy the basics – due to income inequality. Since the 1980s, the growth in income has focused on the top earners, those hedge fund managers and Silicon Valley whiz kids, while wages for the average worker have stalled or stagnated. Try working at McDonald’s or KFC for a few years and feeding a family on that.
The American economy hit rock-bottom during the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than 9 million people unemployed as of May 2021, according to the Centre for American Progress. Aside from the millions facing hunger, as a consequence of this, more than 10 million people were behind on rental payments. Job numbers have ticked up in the months since, yet 5.7 million people remain unemployed as of last month, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, with communities of colour and other underserved families hit particularly hard.
Nowhere are America's economic problems more apparent than the Big Apple, where the skyrocketing cost of food and simple things you need to survive – laundry detergent, subway tickets – makes me dizzy.
Every day in Manhattan, I cross people in extreme pain. The very young homeless man sleeping on a grate to keep warm on East 69th and Fifth Avenue – a bastion of extreme wealth – just in front of Central Park. The old man who has built an entire shelter out of plastic in front of Cooper Union near Astor Place, and who protects his kingdom with ferocity. The endless, raving junkies on Second Avenue in the Lower East Side panhandling for anything – food, a drink, a slice of the 99 cent pizza, a few dollars.
I have a personal goal, which is to buy food or a small meal for one person every day. Sometimes it is frustrating, as it’s such a drop in the bucket. I often feel defeated and depressed by how futile that contribution is, and what could be done to change it. My local coffee shop, Neil’s, on Lexington Avenue often gives breakfast to homeless people who spend the night sleeping rough. But they are the exception. Most people look the other way when approached by someone in need. It’s easier.
The worse situation is the number of children going to school hungry. Last week, The New York Times published an extraordinary essay about poverty and hunger by Bertrand Cooper, a Los Angeles-based writer.
“Escaping poverty is a question of how long you can go without pleasure. If you were raised with money, going without pleasure might mean something like cancelling your Netflix subscription,” he wrote. “What I mean by pleasure is food, clothing and shelter. I mean tolerating the daily denial of basic necessities … going without food is the hardest.”
Cooper described the work of the late American government economist Mollie Orshansky, who chose to put food at the centre of poverty’s official definition.
Orshansky, like Cooper, was raised “poor”. In the 1960s, Cooper reported, she developed the poverty measurement that remains in use today: multiply the cost of a minimally nutritious diet by three, and if you earn one or more dollars less than that, the federal government deems you poor.
In 1988, the year Cooper was born, the Census Bureau reported that there were approximately 31.9 million people in poverty in the US. In 2019, the last year before the pandemic, it had grown to 34 million people. According to one study of 20 million children, only 3 per cent of black children born into poverty make it to the upper class – adults whose annual household income is in the top 20 per cent.
During Covid-19, one of the issues that pained me was how the rich and privileged escaped the apocalyptic city that New York City had become, and the poor and weak were left behind to fend for themselves.
The Bowery, where I lived, became a bleak, almost silent place where the hospital sirens were the most frequent sounds. The streets were empty except for the homeless who were desperate as many shelters closed. Children were educated remotely. But for poor children in homeless shelters, there was no remote. Some of them crouched outside restaurants in the rain and the cold to pick up signals so they could do schoolwork on their phones. But most poor children don’t have smartphones.
Today, even as it emerges from the pandemic, America is in terrible shape – a country of billionaires, Silicon Valley and excess at every level. No one should struggle to eat in the richest country in the world.
So, what can we do to alleviate this? On a simple level, of course, Elon Musk and his fellow billionaires should be investing in initiatives that feed people directly. The UN-sponsored Zero Hunger initiative is trying to tackle the problem globally – where 800 million people struggle to get food every day (that is the combined populations of Indonesia, the US and Pakistan).
At the core of their programme is sustainable agriculture, poverty education and a guarantee of food security – meaning food distribution is done fairly. In short, to address the core issues of poverty rather than merely giving surface level aid.
But the UN’s initiatives are often lofty, academic and achieve very little in the end. What can be done more pragmatically? For me, grassroots is always the key – meaning communities and neighbourhoods need to work within their own limitations. The Covid-19-era refrigerators that were set up in my neighbourhood, where people dropped off bread, produce and fresh goods for those in need to take, was a small but good start. Often people want to help – but don’t know how. Here’s something simple.
On a larger scale, the Republicans and Democrats need to get their act together, stop squabbling and come together and focus on things they can fix: poverty and hunger in America. According to a report by the aforementioned Centre for American Progress, here’s what the US Congress can do to focus on poverty: first, expand the Covid-19-era emergency policies. Second, modernise and strengthen food and nutrition programmes (including the Child Nutrition Act and the Farm Bill). There are other key bills being introduced (such as “Closing the Meal Gap” and “Making Essentials Available and Lawful” Act) that can reduce food insecurity.
Finally, at a state level, budgets can be reallocated to provide assistance, especially to children who go to school hungry. Teachers and caretakers should be trained to notice when a child needs to eat. They can stockpile healthy food for them, and make sure they go home with a dinner bag or high-protein bars and fruit. These things are so easy to achieve.
I write this as America prepares for the mid-term election – when Republicans and Democrats are slugging it out but should be working together – and ahead of Thanksgiving, a time of greed, gluttony and waste.
On a simple level, if everyone looked after their neighbour or the person next to them on the subway who is in need, we could start small. Hopefully build to a better society. That’s my dream, anyway.