What You Won’t Hear at the DNC: Children Are Going Hungry in the Richest Country in the World

Here’s what the Secretary of Agriculture–who is in charge of our nation’s Food Stamp program–had to say about food and hunger at his DNC speech last night:

You know, rural Americans are a special people. Their labor puts food on our table and fuel in our gas tanks.


Today, President Obama is making smart investments in clean energy—wind, solar, biofuels —as part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy that supports thousands of jobs, not in the Middle East, but in the Midwest. And in this season of severe drought, President Obama has acted to help, while calling on Congress to act as well.

For Tom Vilsack, corn is what you pour into a car, not what you put into hungry bellies, not even during a year of record drought.

And here’s what the Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who is up for re-election and who is fighting with Paul Ryan’s obstructionist House Republicans over whether the Farm Bill will cut food stamps, had to say about food and hunger while she stood on the DNC stage last night:



(In other, um, words, Obama gave Debbie Stabenow no speaking role.) Even Elizabeth Warren, who gave a great speech focused on how rigged the game is against struggling families, didn’t talk about hunger. Bill Clinton got huge cheers, though, when he made clear that Obama wants to require the poor to work more for welfare, not less.

And yet this week Vilsack’s Ag Department just released the annual report on Food Insecurity showing that more action is needed. (h/t Jeff Bryant) Among other things, the report showed that the number of US households that experienced very low food security last year–6.8 million households or 5.7% of the population–went up last year to the elevated levels of 2008 and 2009. And while parents and policies usually shield children from hunger, in 374,000 homes, they weren’t able to (which remains at the level of 2010). Altogether, 17.9 million people were food insecure at some point last year.

I learned yesterday that if I were one of these 17.9 million people I’d be sunk. Rather than watch the early speeches last night (conincidentally, I came home just in time to see Vilsack), I attended a local poverty simulation as part of Hunger Action Week. We broke up into “families” and tried to get through a month making ends meet without enough money to do so; I was the single mother of 3 kids, aged 9 to 17, whose ex-husband had recently lost his job and stopped paying child support.

I found I immediately went into panic mode just figuring out how to pay for transportation to start negotiating the system (it was one thing that added up but wasn’t an obvious budget item). When I was “at work” (a part time minimum wage job at a hospital) all I could think of was dashing to the multiple agencies that might help me make ends meet after work. My “nights,” too, were spent trying to game out how I would accomplish all I needed to the next day to put food on the table. I spent a lot of time waiting in lines. It took me two weeks to figure out how the system worked, at which point I was already behind on utilities and my mortgage. And the kids wanted to help so badly they started listening to the local drug dealer offering to pay them for dropping off packages; since I wasn’t home I couldn’t dissuade them.

In the end, my family fared less well than 2 other families just like mine in the simulation. We did manage to eat all month long–that part I managed really well (though we did rely on food stamps, so we’d surely have them cut back if either the GOP home heating credit rule goes through or if the PA rule on owning cars did). But we got evicted in the last week of the month. Partly, that’s because our 17 year old never got a shit job at Burger King to help pay the bills like the other families’ 17 year olds, though not for want of trying. Partly, that’s because I took the legally sound but pragmatically unsound approach of telling the bank they didn’t own the note to my mortgage so they couldn’t foreclose on me; when the sheriff came to evict me he was uninterested in discussing securitization. And partly it was because I didn’t start negotiating for partial payments with the utilities and bank because that was all I could pay from the start.

I like to think of myself as a competent person, but it turns out I’m utterly incompetent at negotiating the very difficult task of being poor.

One of the most striking parts of the simulation had nothing to do with the very sobering simulation part. As my group was doing introductions and I explained to a local pastor what I do, he asked how I had time to do this simulation given that it was a September before election season, to say nothing of smack dab in the middle of Convention season.

At the time, I thought it an odd question. Hunger is part of politics, isn’t it? Providing for the less well off is one important point of politics, isn’t it?

But as it turns out, pouring corn into cars is apparently a higher priority.

Update: There is a line in Clinton’s speech describing “no matter how many jobs that he saved or created, there’d still be millions more waiting, worried about feeding their own kids, trying to keep their hopes alive.”

21 replies
  1. OrionATL says:

    nothing underlines the mean-spirited nature of all of american political rhetoric these days like the disinterest in, and contempt for, america’s poor.

    in addition to considering cutting food stamps, a move which should be a political career-ender but is instead simply a matter for political discussion, consider this –

    several millions of america’s poor and near-poor, including a young family who are my neighbors, do not own a car. that was a statistic used by a federal court of appeals to invalidate a texas voter id law (and reported here).

    – no car, or a broken car

    – minimal housing security

    – minimal or no income security

    – frequent moves that disrupt schooling

    – minimal food security

    – no or little medical care

    in 45 years the democratic party has moved from supporters of a war on poverty to hangers-on in a political and policy war on america’s poor.

    in a nation that now wallows in public religiosity, one of the fundamentals of the christian religion, caring for and caring about the poor, is treated as contemptible by the party of near-corporate religiosity

    and as a matter for evasion by the other political party.

    but war?

    and money for war?

    mars is now america’s god and war its religion.

  2. harpie says:

    A very interesting and moving post, Marcy.
    A while back, anglachel did a bit of blogging about food and poverty in America.

    Here’s the link to Another Day, Another Dollar [10/13/10], which provides links to other articles. Some of the tags of interest are: Class, Economics, Food, Nutrition, Poverty, and Whole Foods Nation

  3. joanneleon says:

    I admire you for doing the poverty simulation and the group who organizes that activity. If only more people did that. Without getting into too much detail, I learned first hand about that scenario that you were assigned except the kids ages are a couple of years older and that I was also sick with a disabling illness at the same time (advanced Lyme, just coming up from that now after two years of intensive treatment, insurance when I had it, only covered 30 days due to a corrupt panel of doctors in Connecticut).

    I always thought that if your situation was desperate and/or if you were sick, the government provided some subsistence level of help, but this is not true for everyone and that is why families end up homeless. There are so many ways to fall through the cracks or not qualify for help. Disability, if your condition even qualifies (mine doesn’t), can take years to get with multiple appeals.

    It really is unconscionable, imho, that it seems like most people in elected office and most people who are in a comfortable situation are much more worried about people just trying to get something they don’t really need or deserve, just trying to beat the system, etc.

    If not for an extremely compassionate SO, we would have fallen through the cracks. And the situation has improved in a couple of ways but is still very tenuous. I have no idea how this story ends or if I will ever make up what was lost. I will say that the CHIP program is a life saver, health insurance for the kids, and this week my oldest started college, due to the financial aid and student loan program. If not for those and my SO, it would have ruined my kids as much as it has ruined me.

  4. Mary McCurnin says:


    25% of the people of New Orleans had no car in 2005. That is why they did not evacuate during Katrina. That and having no funds available to go anywhere. And no plans had been made to get them out of town.
    This is something I learned after the storm. I find it shocking that I did not know it before hand.

  5. harpie says:

    A recent photo essay in the NYT:

    Exposures: Young and Homeless

    SADLY for the children across America who are homeless today, neither presidential campaign is expected to pay much attention to them, with big policy speeches or new ideas about improving their situation. […]

  6. klynn says:

    Nineteen years ago, I went uncover as a single mom with a baby trying to get a job and housing. My biggest problem was transportation to agencies and job prospects. I was just undercover to find out how GO’s and NGO’s were doing their job. The issue of transportation, though on the radar for some organizations, it was not on everyone’s tick list of needs to fight poverty. I remember being given a bus pass for the day and then most of my appointments ended up being for the following day. Epic failure.

  7. It's All Good says:

    People!! People!! the European Central Bank is going to bail out the banks in Europe with its form of Quantatative Easing and thus, the American stock markets are going UP UP UP (like a rocket ship on Viagra!!) today and that is what you People need to start focusing your attention on!! priorities, People, priorities!!

  8. Steven Walcott says:

    Despite my pledge not to watch any convention speeches of either party I did tune in to see Bubba do his thing.

    And I feel like he and Obama share this Democratic skill to make things look and feel better than they really are. The number of glassy eyed folks on the convention floor was mind blowing.

    I read in a David Cay Johnston Reuters article that 56,000 American factories have been closed and shipped abroad since 2000 and both parties have been deeply involved with that happening.

    So depressing.

  9. emptywheel says:

    @joanneleon: Yeah, that’s one thing I learned. I knew how long it takes to get disability (saw a friend lose his house during the wait). But that notion that you start losing just in the weeks it takes to learn how the system works. And of course, at the beginning is when the waits are the longest.

    The Pastor was doing his second simulation bc his church is doing more advocacy work on poverty and wanted to convince them to do the simulation as well. That’d be a good idea–to do these simulations for groups. Add that to the “live on food stamps” challenge (which I haven’t done) seem a good way to break through people’s preconceptions about poverty.

    Also, one of the food bank people noted just that–that he sees people “like him” all the time, bc so many people are just one paycheck away from disaster.

  10. emptywheel says:

    @klynn: Not so much here (though still to some degree), but I remember in A2 for years the services were all on the edge of town, which made getting to them via bus particularly difficult.

    I know I’d eventually figure out how to negotiate the services–I have, at least, negotiated UE insurance in the past–but it’s the waiting and the wasted time that would really be difficult, I think.

  11. Kathryn in MA says:

    This issue gets me, too. Remember the single mother who would cross a 6-lane highway to get to her bus stop and her little son was struck by a drunk driver and killed. In texas, i believe. It was another half hour into her schedule to walk to the crosswalk and back up to the bus stop. But half hours really add up when you have to take public transp to a day care, then to a school, then to work, and back again. The young mother was interviewed on Fox, i believe, and i saw a little bit. She wasn’t eloquent enough to explain all the issues involved in her reasons for cutting across the highway, and the blond bimbo interviewing her had no idea/sympathy/compassion at all, and i so sad no one could advocate for at least a pedestrian bridge from the housing complex to the bus stop.

  12. MadDog says:

    The poor have always suffered with little or no political influence. It used to be that a Democratic party recognized this and worked to make a positive difference in their lives.

    Some of that continues today in isolated pockets, but too many Democrats in positions of power give only lip service to the problems of the poor.

    That you EW participated in this effort on walking in their footsteps only increases the stature with which we view you.

    A round of kudos on me for a really heartfelt post!

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Tens of millions of Amurrikan children, and their parents, may experience transient food insecurity, but “hungry” is too imprecise a term to measure it or to provide tools for appreciating the benefits of existing policies and the social system they foster. *g*

  14. sd says:

    Temporary disability can utterly destroy someone on the edge financially – last I checked, only 5 states (plus Puerto Rico) require employers to carry workers comp to cover temp disability.

  15. ferd says:

    Getting in position to hand food to hungry people is, very slowly, becoming my dream, maybe. Anyway, love this post from Marcy about learning just how hard it is, and how much brainpower along with physical stamina and agility it takes to be poor in America.

    Speaking of caring for the poor: Check out Michael Grunwald from TIME! (can’t believe it) talking about Obama’s quiet efforts to help poor people. Grunwald seems to have his facts DOWN, and he presents his case better than anybody going on TV, I think. Sam Seder, for example, seems like a lighter than lightweight in comparison, which was a SHOCK. Chris Hayes keeps saying about what Grunwald is saying, “Why don’t we KNOW this stuff?”

    If Dems could get Grunwald onto the Sunday chats, he’d be a MASSIVE force for good, I think. Super effective guy.

    Maybe after a while, Grunwald will implode and we’ll find out he’s just another TIME jerk. But in this discussion with Chris Hayes, Grunwald seems like an absolute star.

    Video link:


  16. ferd says:


    Rats, the video link I provided above doesn’t get to the really good stuff where Grunwald lays out what Obama has done for the poor, behind the scenes. I’ll try to find it and post a link.

    Sounds, to me, like Obama has tried hard, and done a lot for the poor. Why not trumpet the accomplishments? “That n-word is just shoveling our money to those people.” would be a guess, but only a guess.

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