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Finishing the Job at Home

How About a War on Poverty Instead?

by JAYNE LYN STAHL

The local news was replete with images of First Lady Michelle Obama in the elegant, strapless designer gown she wore for this White House’s first state dinner.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to look at gowns by Naeem Khan as much as anyone, but as we edge closer to that holiday most often associated with abundance, and overindulgence, one can’t help but be distracted by the equally stunning number of people who find themselves hungry and poor this Thanksgiving.

More than 12% of all Americans know what it means to be poor in America. While they’re conspicuously absent from reality T.V. shows, from box office movies, and political party platforms, they are increasingly visible at food banks, and shelters.

Too often, politicians of both parties speak of the need to save the middle class, but nobody talks about the working poor. There is little mention of those who return from the battlefield only to struggle to keep their homes, their dignity, and find a way to feed their families.

As the Web site Feeding America reports, in 2008:

40 million, or 13%, of Americans lived in poverty. 8 million families, or more than 10%, were in poverty 22 million, or nearly 12%, of people between 18-64 were in poverty. 14 million, or nearly 20, of children under 18 were in poverty. Nearly 10% of households with seniors were food insecure. 3.6 million seniors, 65 and older, nearly one in ten, live in poverty

In 2008, 49 million people lived didn’t have enough to eat (32 million adults and 17 million children). A disproportionate number of those who face the gravest food shortages are men, women, and children of color. The number of households that experience food shortages has increased by 3.5% from 2007-2008 alone.

Ironically, the state with the second greatest percentage of hungry residents is Texas, home to our previous president, George W. Bush.

In 2002, 35 million went hungry, a number that has increased by 50% since then.

Last year, 4% of all U.S. households, nearly 5 million Americans, accessed emergency food from a food pantry one or more times.

In 2008, too, more than 50% of all households experiencing food shortages participated in one of the major federal food assistance programs, but that’s not enough. Instead of the trillions of dollars this administration has committed to buying drones, building embassies in Iraq, and sending thousands of more servicemen and women into combat, we need to fight the war on poverty here at home.

According to the Oakland Institute, a staggering 50% of all Americans between 20 and 65 (4 out of every 10 adults in America) will use food stamps in their lifetimes. 85% of African-Americans will need to use food stamps. African-Americans and Hispanics make up the leading groups of those experiencing the most egregious food deprivation.

In 2008, households with children were more likely to experience food insecurity than single households. Nearly 40% of households headed by single women experience hunger while nearly 30% of households with children run by single men have dire food insufficiency.

Clearly, Congress is making a good start by working to pass legislation that will enable more Americans to get affordable health insurance, but that’s only a start.

If this government devoted even half the resources to the war on poverty that it has to the war on terror not one child in America would go to sleep hungry tonight.

I don’t want to be a party pooper and suggest that the mainstream media run footage at food banks, and encampments where people have now moved after losing their homes to foreclosure instead of the Obamas at tonight’s state dinner. It’s nice to have a break from reality once in awhile.

But, when the president announced today that he intends to "finish the job" in Afghanistan, it becomes clear the job he needs to finish is here, and not in the Middle East.

JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.