Poverty is a Story We Can End

I walk past ads every day for Feeding America, an organization that works to end food insecurity in the United States. The ads have a sentence or two about what it's like to live without knowing where the next meal comes from, or if it will come. The one I pass most often is at a bus stop and has two parents explaining to their kids why they're skipping dinner. At the end of each ad is the phrase, "HUNGER IS A STORY WE CAN END."

Of course it is.

There are a dozen good reasons why we're collectively capable of ending hunger. The organization's website notes, in particular, that Americans discard billions of tons of food. But we also waste taxpayer money on programs that are ineffective, on regressive rates, and on exorbitant military spending. We also don't have high enough taxes. Conservatives argue that hunger and poverty are properly dealt with by private charity. They're wrong, but even if they weren't, the enormous private wealth that sits idle while people starve is an astonishing indictment of our collective character.

I understand the ads I see around the city as attempting inspiration. They argue that their fight is one we can win and hope to galvanize support. But they're also an accusation, and I'd wager they're meant to be. Hunger is a story we can end. It was fifty years ago and fifty years before that. Yet we chose not to end it. That choice has a lot to do with our inability to consider what poverty actually is.

The way we talk about poverty in this country is astonishing, but woven firmly into our vision of what our country is. Tony Judt writes of his adopted country that the economy has been managed by the state to some extent since its inception. He states that "what distinguishes the U.S.A. from every other developed country has been the widespread belief to the contrary."

Americans loathe the notion that the government should meddle in private affairs, unless those private affairs are their own and they can convince themselves (which they always can) that the meddling is objectively urgent and that some unfairness has rendered them worthy. But more important than the idea that the government should protect me from the unfair loss of my wealth or status, is the idea that I earned that wealth and status in the first place. We believe America is a land of opportunity and that anyone can do anything if they have the pluck and vision it requires. This is fundamental to our mythology, and carries along with it the assumption that happening upon wealth and status by chance is un-American.

We're unable to deal with the idea that wealth is as much a function of birthright as of elbow grease. When we talk about poverty we can only talk about personal responsibility. To us, those who choose not to work or who smoke, drink, or gamble, don't deserve help. Anything we give is more than they deserve. The only frame through which we see disadvantage is through bad choices, laziness, or vice. That doesn't stem exclusively from of a lack of compassion or unwillingness to open our minds. We can't confront poverty as a function of birth and misfortune interacting with choice because to do so would implicate wealth.

If a person can be born into poverty or slide into it through no fault of their own, then the same can be said of wealth. People without food or shelter or security deserve help because people deserve dignity, in large part regardless of their choices. But the idea that poverty can happen to anyone carries with it the idea that wealth can happen to anyone as well. The reality of poverty carries with it the implication that the means by which we assign wealth or the lack thereof is distinctly un-American according to our own standards. That our own comfort or lifestyle might be evidence of that is too much for us to confront.

So we ignore it.

We won't read the story. We won't open the book. We won't even acknowledge that there's a story to be told or a book in front of us. Hunger – poverty, un-insurance, food insecurity, unemployment – is a story we can end. The exceptional thing about this country is not our ability to end it, but the fact that we've chosen not to.