We know there is hunger in the United States. We know that the virus has made this hunger worse. But rarely, safe for very few of us, think about the persistence of hunger. Photographer Brenda Anne Kenneally did, she grew up in difficult circumstances and right before the virus wanted to photograph the people and places where there is persistent hunger. When it hit in March she just went ahead, because she said, “The situations that define a life of scarcity were becoming democratized.” The NYT published her photographic essay, America at Hunger’s Edge”, while Adrian Nicole LeBlanc wrote an accompanying article summarizing the history of helping the hungry. The point LeBlanc makes is that hunger has been treated as an emergency, as something temporary, not as something systemic, and therefore the causes of hunger have not been addressed. Lineally found that in Houston in 2019 the Mamie George Community Center gave 567,000 pounds of food—understandably a number almost matched from March to July 2020. During the Depression our awareness of hunger started with Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph “Migrant Mother”, a mother whose face is a poignant depiction of hunger with three of her children, a picture which increased popularity for New Deal programs. The Federal Surplus Commodities program grew out of the Depression, but hunger persisted and in the 60’s when it came to the fore led to the beginning of food stamps. The program has undergone several changes, and had led to offshoots with several names, but usually leaves out many of the hungry, or else covers only a portion of the food needs.
We are more and more aware of economic inequalities and their consequences, and looking at hunger as a symptom and in its socioeconomic and political contexts is overdue. The causes are systemic and addressing them falls into the realm of moral imperatives.
There are now 788 billionaires in the US, or at least there was in 2019 according to a study by Wealth-X which issues a comprehensive report yearly, that is 12% more than the year before. Collectively they control $ 3.4 trillion which is 14% more than they did in 2018. The US actually has more billionaires than any other country, more than the next 5 countries combined. China is second with less than half the US number. In 2016 the 620 billionaires in the US controlled $2.6 trillion. The growth among the mega rich which is partly due to the tech boom is now the subject of much discussion. It is becoming more and more inescapable that the US has economic policies which favor billionaires and end up placing workers at a disadvantage. Are the rich too rich, many are now beginning to ask? Given it is an election year it is assumed the question will be a continued topic. When considering how difficult it is for many workers to be paid a living wage, how many jobs are being lost to automation, how many are unemployed with no assurance they will be able to get their job back due to Covid-19, when several studies show the US trending towards being a plutocracy, how rich is too rich is not only an important topic it is a must.
I didn’t dare go to my very busy pharmacy and stand in line for a prescription, so I used Instacart and a youngish petite blond woman delivered it. We are all using delivery services more these days. Their employees take the chances we are not willing to take, and fulfill a service without which our lives would substantially loose quality and comforts. In addition they are instrumental to our being able to stay safe. We are grateful, yes, yet they are the lowest paid. They have to use their own cars and are not reimbursed for the wear and tear. The husband of a house cleaner I know was a Uber driver and needed new tires which he could not afford, a scenario many of those workers surely face. Even more relevant in an era when health care is more crucial than usual, they have no health benefits. We like the cheap services. Would we use Instacart as much if the charges were higher? And if they were, for many they would no longer be affordable. It’s also the same conflict many of us have with using Amazon, a company who pays their warehouse and delivery workers so little. There are signs that after the pandemic eases the delivery businesses will have to change. There are pressures for them to do so, economic, social, legal. The result is likely to lead to higher prices for having things delivered. When that happens, for it is inevitable, how will our gratitude for all the delivery workers who cushion our lives extend to accept higher charges so that they can have better salaries and better benefits?
In Maduro’s Venezuela one out of every three is malnourished and hungry, among those who may be considered more middle class it’s one in five. In Northern Syria, there are over 900,000 people caught in the war there, and 13 million Syrians have already been displaced. The near one million refugees have no place to go, no one to turn to. It’s been so cold, several children have frozen to death. In Kashmir, the government continues its limited Internet access and other restrictions against the mainly Muslim state, not to speak of the recent riots in New Delhi which is causing many to flee because Muslims are no longer wanted in those areas. In China the Muslim Uighurs are being put in so called reeducation camps for the slightest action, such as growing a beard. In Yemen war rages, in Libya, anarchy continues, in several countries, refugees keep coming and find no refuge, no let up to their angst and difficulties, no escape from poverty, sometimes no way to survive. I could go on about the suffering of the world, and yes these are man-made problems, and because they are man-made they are even harder to resolve, because the human imperfections that caused them still exist. There may be very little we can do, but we can remember these lives, learn from their courage, their fortitude, be inspired by how they endure and handle their suffering, be humbled by their strength and bravery and most of all remember them because their problems dwarf ours no matter how serious ours may be.