- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The recent rise in certain economic indicators is being embraced by some as the recipe for ending the economic stress of the past three years and giving hope for all Americans this Thanksgiving. The spiking gross domestic product (GDP), lower unemployment numbers and new job creation figures are hailed as harbingers of future rising profits and pension funds. But another harder truth lies behind these numbers. More American families continue to fall into poverty and find it difficult to put a Thanksgiving dinner on the table for their children.

This partial economic recovery has the appearance of leaving our nation’s bounty more sharply divided than ever between the favored few and the left out. This raises the question of whether our political leadership is willing to provide a road map out of this division. Is it good government or even good politics to tell this tale of two recoveries? Can fighting hunger be as viable a political issue as fighting terrorism?

The recovery numbers touted in the media fail to take into account the story of rising American poverty and household hunger. This is a tale not yet told to many, as these startling poverty and household hunger figures were released late on Fridays, with far less attention to the media on weekends:

• Thirty-five million Americans lived in families struggling to put food on the table in 2002, 1.7 million more than 2001, the U.S. Census Bureau reported on Oct. 31.

• Thirteen million children lived in those hungry households.

• Twelve million children lived in poverty in 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau also reported Sept. 26.

Behind each of these numbers is a person, a mother, a father. They are parents who send their children to school hungry, unable to learn, unable to have an equal opportunity to succeed in life. These American families will not experience the same kind of Thanksgiving as families that received the largest share the tax breaks that the Bush administration claims have spurred this “recovery.”

Despite the GDP spike last quarter and the uptick in job creation figures, our economy has had a net loss of 2.4 million jobs since February 2002, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For the past two and a half years, the marketplace created no new sources of jobs to turn to for those out of work. Our economy has never experienced such a job creation drought since monthly job numbers began being reported in 1939. Add to this shrinking job market the 4 million workers (since March 2002) who have run out of their unemployment compensation, and the tale of two recoveries becomes even more compelling.

There are real solutions already in place for stemming the rising tide of hunger. We could improve and expand our nutrition programs, such as school meals and food stamps. Bread for the World Institute estimates that improvements in these programs costing about $6 billion annually could cut U.S. hunger in half — even now while unemployment is high. That amounts to only about 6 cents per American per day.

Conventional political wisdom dictates that politicians should steer clear of our nation’s growing poverty and resulting hunger. But recent bipartisan polls in New Hampshire and Iowa confirm last year’s nationwide poll by the Alliance to End Hunger which showed that voters will support candidates who support effective strategies to reduce hunger and poverty.

Those polls show an astonishingly high number of voters seeing hunger as an important issue for candidates.

• Ninety percent of likely Democratic voters in the first two presidential primary states believe fighting hunger is an important issue.

• More than 90 percent of likely voters nationwide said “fighting the hunger problem” was important to them.

When Democratic voters in New Hampshire were asked whether they wanted to hear candidates’ ideas on fighting terrorism or fighting poverty, slightly more than half said they wanted to hear more about solutions to poverty. When likely caucusgoers in Iowa were asked the same question, 58 percent wanted to hear about fighting poverty, compared to 30 percent who wanted to hear about fighting terrorism.

The Alliance to End Hunger poll also found that voters say September 11 has made them more concerned about human needs in our country and around the world.

Thanksgiving celebrates some of our country’s best instincts. But concern for people in need is not just a holiday mood. It can move voters and win elections for candidates who will propose ways of uniting our economically divided society.

David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World.

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