Urging our nation's leaders to end hunger

Poverty: Systemic, Complex, and Widespread

120710-boostrapsThe American poverty narrative assumes that with the right amount of elbow grease, a person can escape poverty. Our media is littered with heroic stories, and we collectively cheer, celebrating the power of the indomitable American spirit. Some people say, if you are poor, you are just not trying hard enough.

Aside from the fact that such a statement is more about cultural identity than reality, the assumption is affecting budget debates and obscuring solutions that view poverty as a national concern. Poverty doesn’t just affect the individual; it’s a collectively created problem. With the right conditions, poverty can behave like a tsunami, spreading throughout communities and generations, leaving a littered landscape of destruction  in its wake. History reminds us increased poverty has a multiplying affect to the detriment of a nation’s prosperity.

Everyone is affected when less people have access to housing, nutritious food, education, and jobs that pay a living wage. The school lunch program was enacted following World War II, when would-be soldiers were denied duty because of malnutrition, putting national security at risk. As President Truman signed the School Lunch Act, he understood that, “in the long view, no nation is healthier than its children, or more prosperous than its farmers.”


Poverty was an epidemic during the Great Depression. Industrial production and global trade plummeted as unemployment topped at 25 percent. According to The Economist, countries' economies fell like dominoes due to tight austerity measures that brought, “a vicious circle of decline ... .”  People were poor, not because they didn’t try enough, but because a confluence of factors left few opportunities. Unlike today, there was no safety net serving to inhibit the spiral into extreme poverty for those who lost their livelihoods, making recovery that much more difficult.

If history can warn us of pitfalls, then it should be clear that we need to change the public dialogue. When a society focuses on individual responsibility and lifting oneself out of poverty by will and bootstraps, this is misdirecting the conversation. Instead, we must remind our members of Congress that poverty is complex, and the choices they make today have consequences tomorrow – for everyone

Proposals in Congress such as block granting food stamps, eliminating poverty-focused foreign aid, cutting WIC and food aid all have one critical thing in common:  Each proposal would increase poverty. We must insist on a budget that creates cycles of prosperity for all, and not poverty for many.

Write a letter to the editor, use your personal blogs, or use social media such as your Facebook page or Twitter account, and be part of the conversation. Don't let silence be seen as tacit approval to cuts to programs for poor and hungry people! Use your voice and speak out.

+"NO" votes in the House Agriculture Committee are critical to minimizing cuts in the final version of the farm bill that will be negotiated by both Houses of Congress. Call your U.S. representative at 1-800-326-4941 by noon tomorrow, July 11. Thank you for your continued support.

Robin-stephensonRobin Stephenson is regional organizer at Bread for the World.



Photo caption: People gather at a food distribution in southeast Washington, DC, in November, 2009. Photo by Mark Fenton.

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