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July 15, 2009 / sadhbhanu

Our Daily Bread is a Luxury

Breadline Usa

See Original Article in the Guardian

Breadline USA, a book that examines the hidden scandal of American hunger, opens with descriptions of food so delectable and delicious I found myself salivating. The lavish spreads offered up by the author’s Jewish grandmother and later descriptions of “heaping plates of waffles with cream and strawberries” and “mouth watering chocolate moose”, make it abundantly clear that Sasha Abramsky loves to eat and understands that food is one of our greatest sources of pleasure. Sadly his book reveals that for millions of American workers, rather than being a source of pleasure, procuring food is a source of constant anxiety.

We are introduced to numerous men, women and children across America who are so impoverished that they are subsisting on diets that are as monotonous as they are nutritionally deficient. Many are lucky if they get to eat twice a day. They go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, go to school hungry and go to work hungry. For them milk is a rarity, eggs a luxury and meat an exotic delicacy.

In a compelling narrative that takes the reader into the lives of the working poor across the United States while simultaneously offering a condensed economic history of America in the last century, Abramsky – a regular contributor here on Cif – exposes the disturbing truth that many low-income workers in America simply do not earn enough money to eat.

Hunger and poverty are not new phenomenons in America, but the lot of the average worker has considerably worsened since the early 1980s. And in the past decade, two key factors – soaring oil prices and a stagnant minimum wage – have pushed many of our poorest families over the brink. Between 2000 and 2008 oil prices quadrupled, which in turn caused food prices to escalate. During the same period, the federal minimum wage, which was set at $5.15 an hour in 1997, remained stagnant for almost 10 years. The combination of these factors has had devastating consequences for America’s poorest workers, particularly those living in car-dependent regions, whose finances were already stretched to capacity.

It is Abramsky’s contention that the current sorry plight of low-income workers is a direct result of the “casino-capitalism experiment started by Ronald Reagan and ignominiously concluded under George W Bush”. And he makes a convincing argument to support his case. Whether the reader shares his view or not will largely depend on his or her own political persuasion. Liberals will cheer, and conservatives will cry foul – it must somehow be the fault of the poor. But whatever one deems to be the root cause, no one could argue that allowing the free market to do its thing for the past 30 years has had a positive effect on the lives of the working poor.

In the chapter titled “Grapes of Wrath Regurgitated”, the author examines the lot of today’s agricultural workers. It requires no great imaginative leap to see the parallels with their hapless counterparts in Steinbeck’s classic novel, which was set during the Great Depression. These people, some illegal and some not, who perform backbreaking work in the fields, receive wages so low that, despite putting in double shifts that sometimes start as early as 5:00am and end at midnight, they are still unable to adequately nourish themselves or their children. Nor are they able to put anything away to fight off the threat of hunger in the winter months when work is scarce.

Interspersed throughout the book are Abramsky’s accounts of his own dalliance with food insecurity (the polite government euphemism for hunger). For almost two months he restricts himself to the sort of diet that an average worker in a low-end service job could afford. In the very first weeks of his experiment he ends up exceeding his food budget despite sticking to the cheapest possible food items such as non-brand-name canned goods and low-grade sliced bread. He describes the weeks that follow as among the most difficult in his life. The strain of trying to manage a budget that simply did not allow ends to meet, made him irritable, depressed, lethargic and hungry.

The book’s tagline promises a how-to section on fixing the scandal of American hunger, and in the final chapter, Abramsky makes good on this undertaking. His solutions amount to mandating a living wage for low-income workers and affording them the same protections (health benefits, sick pay, vacation pay, family leave and so on) that middle-class workers, who have far greater resources to fall back on in an emergency, are not expected to do without.

Such measures would cost the government money in the short term of course, and as much of the nation’s resources are currently tied up bailing out the big boys, even a president like Obama, who appears to have the political will to help the little people, may not have the political capital to do so.

What Abramsky’s work makes clear, however, is that if a new-style new deal is not put in place by the current administration, millions of American workers will remain trapped in lives of desperation, despair, hopelessness and hunger. For them the land of opportunity is already the land of impossibility and the American dream an illusion. The question that this timely book provokes then is how much longer the rest of us – who but for the grace of God – are OK with that.

(c) The Guardian 2009

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