While many of us gather with our families for Thanksgiving dinner, millions of our nation's working poor will line up outside soup kitchens around the country.
The number of people living in poverty rose 1.3 million last year, bringing the total to 33 million. The unemployment rate is inching up to 6 percent, which means that 9.6 million Americans are without jobs. Forty-two million do not have access to health insurance, and one out of five children go hungry, the highest rate of child poverty among industrialized countries. But behind these numbers, there are real people.
Artensia Barry is a staff member at the Alameda County Food Bank in California. She doesn't volunteer to bide time; she sees herself in the same struggle as the families she helps. The only thing that stands between her and the people she serves is her meager monthly disability check.
"I never thought that I would feel hunger as an adult or have to say that I was hungry." Barry reflects on her childhood, where she never missed a meal while growing up on a small family farm in California's Central Valley. But when she was diagnosed with a chronic medical condition that prevented her from continuing to work as a nurse, she joined the faceless ranks of the 36 million Americans going hungry.
Tragically, she's not alone. And the kinds of people joining her are not those we've come to associate with being survivors of poverty. Barry recalls: "While closing up the food bank one night, a busload of teens from Richmond arrived in the pitch dark. As soon as they were handed a plate of food, they stuffed their faces."
Some will be fortunate to receive a Thanksgiving meal this year, but many will be turned away. Last year, 23.3 million people sought emergency food, according to Second Harvest, the nation's largest emergency food provider. However, approximately 3.2 million hungry people could not be fed. Forty percent of the households seeking help had a working adult, one out of three were children under 18, and one out of 10 were elderly.
With all the wealth generated in the last decade, the assumption was that increased philanthropy could compensate for cuts in government services. Despite the valiant efforts by charities, they cannot meet the burgeoning demands for food.
There will always be ups and downs in any capitalist economy, but what distinguishes this period from previous economic downturns is the denial of a social safety net to the country's most vulnerable, our children and elderly.
In the six years since welfare reform was passed, the majority who were pushed off welfare have failed to find living-wage jobs. According to a landmark study by Boston University Medical Center, children in families whose welfare benefits were cut have 50 percent higher rates of hospitalization and hunger. One in five mothers pushed off welfare has had to reduce meal portions because they didn't have enough money to buy adequate food. But news of growing hunger, poverty and unemployment in the world's richest country has been shut out from the nation's capital.
While our nation's policymakers turn a blind eye to the poor and unemployed, they have increased military spending by $34.5 billion. Military expenditures will reach $395 billion or 18 percent of the federal budget, while our social safety net constitutes just over 1 percent.
More military spending will not ensure homeland security if our legislators ignore the growing economic insecurity of the millions who don't have food or jobs in the United States. If Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate the harvest, then we would do well to heed one of the oldest farming wisdoms: you reap what you sow.
This Thanksgiving should be a reminder to each and every one of us of our responsibility to decide the fate of our nation. We do have a choice between becoming a nation invested in war or a nation built on peace and prosperity.
CHRISTINE AHN is a New Voices Fellow in the economic and social human rights program at Food First.