In 2022, the World Bank estimates, remittances around the world will reach $630 billion. Remittances are the amounts being sent abroad to support family members by workers in foreign countries. It’s an astounding figure representing a 4.2% increase over the previous year. It’s particularly astounding when one remembers that the amount sent abroad are usually sent by migrants, people who do not earn much. There are exceptions surely, but many may not be legally in a country, and earn little. In order to send money to their family they endure a subsistence level existence, perhaps even more so because the costs of wiring money have gone up. These are the people often discriminated against, people whom in the United States, those on the political right are wont to call criminals. I can’t help but respect them. I’ve called attention to them before and I’m doing it again. As a group they make a difference in the economy of their respective country. In the Philippines for example the remittances sent make up 10% of GDP. Remittances slowed during the pandemic and border closures, still remittances to Mexico rose 27% to $32.8 billion and migrants sent 35% more to Guatemala. Ukraine also counts on remittances for 10% of its GDP. Inflation and higher interest rates may affect future remittances, still workers helping supporting their families, most often migrant workers, have and will continue to give and be inspirations for how to share.
About 275 miles north of Rio de Janeiro there’s a city of 2.5 million people with no hunger. It’s Belo Horizonte, a technological industrial hub which had all the social divisions and hunger similar cities have in the US and elsewhere. But back in 1993 the city did something rather notable and rare, it enacted a municipal law that established the right to food. It went further, it established what was needed to make it real. It created a commission of government officials, farmers, labor leaders and gave them a mandate, “ to provide access to food as a measure of social justice.” The cost of all this, less than 2% of the city’s annual budget. The pioneering effort is made up of about 20 interconnected programs, as one might expect all sustainable. A core idea is to connect food producers to consumers, bypassing middle people, and the mark ups retailers can’t help charging. That involves delivering food directly to public schools, nursing homes, daycare centers, clinics, charitable organizations, it means regulating some prices, it calls for food stands, something like farmers’ markets and what can be called public restaurants who charge a fixed price.
It is not an approach that might fit a large urban center like Los Angeles, but many of its ideas could be adapted. Food stands, delivering food to daycare and nursing homes in certain neighborhoods for example. The cost of social services for those who are food insecure, and often unemployed or homeless as well, is much more than 2% of annual budgets. Yet any attempt would have to start with the notion underlying the effort of Belo Horizonte that to provide access to food is a measure of social justice.
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.