Institute Insights: February 2017


Public policy is complex, and sometimes its effects are harder to predict than anyone would expect. Photo by Joe Molieri / Bread for the World

From the Director

We now have a new U.S. president, new members of Congress, a new U.N. Secretary General, new members of the U.N. Security Council — all opportunities to bring new energy and ideas to solving the world’s “same old problems.” Bread for the World Institute’s focus is on strategies to solve one of the oldest human problems — hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity. Over the years, we’ve seen many examples of how courageous leadership, fresh approaches, and/or cooperation across the ideological spectrum have made the difference in the struggle to end hunger.

There have also been setbacks. The most dramatic ones of recent years were the 2008 food price crisis that caused great suffering for tens of millions of hungry people in developing countries and, at about the same time, the Great Recession in the United States. The Great Recession, like the food price crisis, caused the most harm to people who were already struggling to make ends meet and at risk of hunger or already hungry.

One of the most important takeaways of the last few years has been “do no harm.” Public policy is complex, and sometimes its effects are harder to predict than anyone would expect.

Of the multitude of public policies that affect food security, some worsened the impact of the twin economic crises on the most vulnerable people, and others helped limit the damage. Just a couple of examples: the global food price crisis was worsened by food producer nations that restricted exports of crops, which drove prices even higher. This wasn’t usually the intention — the thought in food-exporting countries was generally to protect their own population’s food supply — but it was an effect.

On the other hand, many governments identified and adopted public policies that helped resolve the problem. The damage was mitigated by the success of some food-importing countries in expanding public safety net programs and in initiating or scaling up programs such as “food for work.” Food for work even had the added benefit of helping meet local needs such as upgrades to roads and additional wells, which in turn made communities better able to cope with subsequent price shocks. And in the longer term, donor countries’ pledges to invest significant new resources in agriculture — meaning that more countries could produce more of their own food — also helped contain the extreme volatility of staple food prices.

In the case of the Great Recession in the United States, weak regulations and lax enforcement led to a housing bubble and a subprime mortgage crisis. When “the bubble burst,” banks collapsed, the unemployment rate shot up, and millions of families lost their homes and/or savings. Hunger and poverty spiked. On the other hand, government responses also ultimately helped ease the recession. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), for example, helped “get the economy moving again” by pumping in funds for such things as paying wages and enabling people to pay for needed goods and services, which in turn helped local businesses stay afloat. 

So “policy” is a double-edged sword. In this issue of Institute Insights, we look more closely at both some opportunities and some risks that lie before our new administration and Congress. Amidst all the complexities, previous incoming leadership teams have gotten the best results by first looking at the likely consequences (intended and unintended) of proposed policies, and then assessing the improvements the new rules would bring.

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute

Asma Lateef is director of Bread for the World Institute.

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Access to clean drinking water leads to improvements in public health. Photo by Arne Hoel / World Bank.

My First Message to President Trump: Bolster U.S. Global Development

By Faustine Wabwire

As a policy wonk in Washington, DC, I spend my days thinking about how the United States can best engage with the international community and identify strategies that lead to “win-win” situations. I’m always delighted to help policymakers, particularly officials in a new administration and members of Congress who are new or assuming new roles, understand why so many policy analysts make the case for U.S. international development assistance as a top U.S. priority.

First, this may go without saying, but it is vital for the United States to engage fully with the global community and various foreign countries. The days when the United States could mostly keep to itself are over — if they ever existed. The rest of the world affects us in so many areas – from trade to refugees to the health of our shared planet — that foreign policy must be thoughtful and nuanced. It must both protect our country and people and help solve problems that affect all countries and people. 

The United States has for many decades — going back at least as far as the Marshall Plan after World War II — been a global leader in development. From responding to pandemics that could jeopardize U.S. national security, to helping countries strengthen their economies and position themselves to become important trade partners, U.S. foreign assistance is an investment. It also fulfills a moral imperative, saving literally millions of lives every year.

National security experts from both Republican and Democratic points of view, and from all sides of the political spectrum, emphasize the importance of strong U.S. leadership. As an indispensable tool for diplomacy, national security, and economic prosperity, international development assistance is not a partisan issue — it is an American issue. This is why we urge President Trump to sustain and strengthen positive U.S. global engagement. It will further his administration’s goals, and it is critical to protecting the interests of the United States.

A major area where U.S. leadership has been and remains critical is climate change. There’s no doubt that the continued well-being of Earth is essential to all human lives and endeavors. Without a healthy planet, we cannot survive as a species. This is why responding quickly and effectively to climate change is a necessity, not an option. It used to be that the evidence of climate change and the damage it is causing was not as conclusive, but the evidence has been overwhelming for several years now. It also used to be that people thought of it as a problem for our grandchildren or great-grandchildren. But with many parts of the world already visibly affected, we can see for ourselves that it is a problem for us, now.

Around the world, climate change is threatening the progress made in recent decades toward ending hunger and malnutrition. It is destroying businesses. It is forcing rural people off their land because they can no longer produce enough food. Developing countries are not the only sites of damage from climate change. The 2012 U.S. drought, which covered almost 62 percent of the land area of the 48 contiguous states, was said to be second in size only to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Also in 2012, Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on the East Coast, causing about $30 billion in damage and killing more than 100 people.

It is a sign of hope that in December 2015, U.S. leadership helped achieve a key milestone in responding to climate change – the Paris Climate Agreement. At this time, a large majority of the world’s countries made commitments to help implement a global action plan. The plan puts the global community on track to limit Earth’s temperature increase to less than 2°C — a task considered essential to preventing the most catastrophic consequences.

A second area, out of many possible examples, is U.S. leadership on local capacity development, which simply means equipping developing countries to “do-it-yourself.” Technical assistance and other support enables countries to strengthen the systems and skills base they need to drive inclusive economic growth, provide essential services such as public utilities, establish safety nets to protect people from hunger and extreme poverty, and fulfill other basic government responsibilities. As we mentioned in last month’s Institute Insights, the United States has supported these efforts through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Feed the Future, and other initiatives. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has also been working within its own structure to strengthen the impact of development assistance. Two such initiatives are USAID Forward and USAID Innovation Labs.

As the first months pass, the new administration and Congress should build on these and other recent U.S. leadership efforts to make continued progress in climate change, local capacity, women’s empowerment, nutrition, agriculture, and other essential areas. It will require close collaboration among government agencies, and among different spheres such as health, education, and energy. It will also require a case-by-case approach, acknowledging that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the problems facing developing countries. Fragile and conflict affected states in particular present unique challenges.

But past experience shows us that incoming administrations have made significant contributions to U.S. security and prosperity by bolstering international development assistance. My message boils down to: Mr. Trump and his administration can and should do this too.

Faustine Wabwire is senior foreign assistance policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute.

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In Gaza, a mother and child in a camp for displaced persons. Photo by Natalia Cieslik / World Bank.

Links, Fragility, and Elephants in the Room: A Closer Look at the Hunger Report

By Michele Learner

Bread for the World Institute has been producing an annual Hunger Report for more than 25 years now. And yes, it’s always about hunger. Haven’t we run out of things to say yet?

Our answer — not surprisingly given the recent release of Hunger Report 2017, Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities — is no. That’s largely because hunger, while seemingly a straightforward, self-contained topic, affects all or nearly all aspects of human life. One reason that the world has made so much progress against global hunger since 1990 — the proportion of people who suffer from chronic malnutrition has been cut nearly in half — is that governments and the international community realized that problems usually thought of as separate from hunger are, in fact, inextricably linked. This enabled leaders to see and respond to the need to tackle problems simultaneously.

Some of these links seem obvious in hindsight, such as how malnutrition and lack of clean water reinforce each other. Others weren’t widely recognized until social changes sharpened them and data uncovered them, because they required a shift in thinking. A prime example is gender discrimination, whose complex interrelationships with hunger were the focus of our 2015 Hunger Report, When Women Flourish ... We Can End Hunger. When women have more decision-making authority in their families and societies, and, crucially, access to education, they are better able to provide themselves and their children with sufficient nourishing food. The 2016 Hunger Report, The Nourishing Effect, explored another link that is commonly overlooked: the effect of hunger and food insecurity in the United States on our people’s health and our nation’s healthcare costs.

Here are several of the recommendations in Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities, along with a brief explanation of our reasons for making them.  

  • Develop a whole-of-government plan to coordinate and expand U.S. government engagement in fragile states.
  • Work with the international community to increase official development assistance to conflict-affected and fragile states, including through multilateral mechanisms such as the World Bank’s International Development Association.
  • Fulfill U.S. commitments to the Paris climate agreement adopted in December 2015, including financing the Green Climate Fund.
  • Allow for much greater flexibility in how USAID partners with governments and civil society in fragile states.
  • Invest in sectors such as agriculture and infrastructure shown to have the greatest potential to reduce poverty and generate large numbers of jobs.
  • Invest in climate-smart social protection strategies so the people most vulnerable to climate change are not forced to adopt negative coping strategies.
  • Strengthen the ability of national and local partners to prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities focuses on a key obstacle to ending global hunger and malnutrition that, while not new, has recently been defined more specifically and has gotten more “name recognition” — fragile states (and other fragile environments). The report discusses two major reasons that countries or regions are fragile — the very old problem of war, and the relatively new one of climate change. (In order to make the idea of fragility less abstract, I sometimes think of these as the elephants in the room where we are working to end hunger). It’s not hard to understand why war causes hunger and malnutrition, and it’s very hard not to notice the tens of millions of people uprooted from their homes and livelihoods. But until recently, the international community didn’t fully recognize how much responsibility for continued hunger and malnutrition is borne by armed conflict. Now it is unmistakable: people are three times as likely to be hungry in countries affected by conflict as in countries at peace. Just one among a number of illustrations of the severity of the impacts: Since its start in 2011, the war in Syria has erased 35 years of development gains.  

Climate change and the increasing number of natural disasters it has brought is the other elephant in the room when it comes to ending hunger. For years now, climate change has been forcing people to leave their land and homes. Whether the immediate causes are more intense and frequent droughts, more intense and frequent floods, new pests and crop diseases, and/or other results of climate change, the results are the same: people can no longer grow enough food. Even with prompt action to slow climate change, the number of climate refugees is expected to rise significantly over the next few years. If no effective global action is taken, it is hard to see an end in sight.

The United States, while not a fragile country, has communities in many states where 20 percent or more of the people live below the federal poverty line. The Hunger Report’s top-line recommendation for such areas of concentrated poverty is to “set a medium-term goal to end concentrated poverty in the United States by 2025.” For more on the report’s recommendations on concentrated poverty, please see “Accelerating Progress & Avoiding Harm on the Road to Ending Hunger” in this issue of Institute Insights.

Michele Learner is associate editor at Bread for the World Institute. 

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Portrait of a mother and her children. The family participates in the CHIP program (Children's Health Insurance Program). Photo by Margaret W. Nea for Bread for the World.

Accelerating Progress & Preventing Harm on the Road to Ending Hunger

By Cynthia Woodside

Damage can happen in an instant. Repairs take more time. A break in a typical home water pipe can dump 50 gallons of water per minute into a basement, but fixing the pipe, draining the water, removing the damaged property, and making the basement livable again takes longer.

In addition to time and resources, it also requires an effective plan of action and a sustained commitment to repairing all the damage and restoring everything that was affected. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophe on a massive scale, much of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward has not recovered even after more than 10 years and billions of dollars in federal aid. The storm passed quickly, but if attention shifts from recovery before it’s complete, the damage may be permanent.

Public policy on hunger and poverty can be viewed the same way. Poor, uninformed policy choices can wreak immediate havoc in people’s lives and lead to longer-term, possibly irrevocable harm. Supplying remedies for the damage to individuals, families, and communities stemming from policy choices that may have been made literally overnight takes time, resources, and commitment.

January 2017 marked the beginning of the second year of the 2030 Agenda, adopted in 2015 by the United States and 192 other countries. The 2030 Agenda incorporates 17 economic, social, and environmental goals. These include ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition and ending extreme poverty. 2030 may sound far in the future, but 14 years can go by quickly. In order to realize the stronger, more equitable kind of country that the 2030 Agenda would create, the new 115th Congress and the incoming Trump administration must hit the ground running — and, of course, make smart policy choices based on credible research.

To do so, policymakers must recognize and appreciate two realities. The first reality: bad policies can destroy progress quickly and possibly permanently, while good policies take time to show the desired results. This means that first and foremost, Congress and the administration should ensure that they do no harm. Some policy proposals must therefore be rejected, because they would damage or destroy the social protections that we all rely on—particularly the 14 million people who currently live below the federal poverty line.

An important example is proposals to turn SNAP and/or Medicaid into a block grant. Such measures would jeopardize government’s ability to help people struggling to make ends meet, because under a block grant or similar structure, those in need can be turned away once a fixed amount of state or local funding has been exhausted.  

The second reality: the gulf between “winners” and “losers” has widened in the current economy — and is projected to continue to grow. Given this reality, the greatest obligation of today’s policymakers is to help compensate the losers. The immediate need is to build a stronger system of supports to help those left behind in the changing economic landscape — those who struggle to meet the basic human needs of food, shelter, and health care.

A priority for policymakers should be to focus public policy solutions and resources on areas of concentrated poverty, meaning areas where 20 percent or more of the population lives below the federal poverty line. Currently, a family of four that falls below the poverty line has an income of less than about $24,000 a year. Concentrated poverty is found in communities all over the country: Appalachian communities in Kentucky and North Carolina, former manufacturing communities in Michigan and Ohio, former mining communities in North Dakota and West Virginia, Native American communities in South Dakota and Alaska, Latino communities in Arizona and New Mexico, African American communities in Mississippi and South Carolina, and the list goes on.

It is harder for low-income people in these areas to climb out of poverty than it is for others, because their neighborhoods are more likely to have weaker schools, fewer job opportunities, less access to such amenities as supermarkets and libraries, and more risk of violent crime.

Thus, it is alarming that the likelihood that a person or family below the poverty line will live in a concentrated poverty community has increased significantly. In 2014, 55 percent of all people in poverty lived in such neighborhoods — up from 43.5 percent in 2000.

As we point out in the 2017 Hunger Report, Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities, “Some small-scale demonstration projects have shown promise in these communities, but they come and go without being brought to scale. What is needed is a long-term commitment to resolve the many interconnected problems. To aggressively reduce the rate of concentrated poverty, policymakers will need to use all tools at their disposal.”

Here are some potential starting points:

  • Ensure that infrastructure or economic growth legislation puts vulnerable families and communities first.
  • Create a public jobs program focused on connecting workers who have barriers to employment with in-demand job skills.
  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for childless workers.
  • Provide housing assistance to all families with incomes of less than 30 percent of area median income.
  • Identify and act on strategies to improve access to good schools, affordable health care, and asset and credit-building opportunities.

We urge the incoming administration and Congress to be guided by the two realities we’ve pointed out here — the wrong policy choices can cause immediate harm that is difficult or sometimes impossible to reverse, and there are an increasing number of people who are losing in today’s economy and deserve priority attention from our government. Taking these into account as the weeks and months pass will strengthen the chances of achieving the 2030 Agenda — which is really a synonym for the peaceful and prosperous country everyone deserves.

Cynthia Woodside is senior domestic policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute. 

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Some of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, 1977.

Celebrating Black Leadership in the Fight to End Hunger

By Marlysa D. Gamblin

Black History Month gives us all a chance to celebrate the leadership in the African American community in the fight to end hunger and poverty. From the antebellum period to the present day, and on the local, state, and national levels, the United States has benefited from the dedicated efforts of many African Americans to reduce hunger and poverty, particularly among marginalized communities.

In our local communities, we see teachers, social workers, health workers, community organizations, and churches in the African American community working day in and day out to make changes that will lessen the causes of hunger at the local level. On the state level, we see Black state legislators carrying out vows they made to ensure that there is adequate funding for essential safety net programs, such as the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Nationally, we see many historic leaders — from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who preached for income equality and the need to end hunger, to other courageous civil rights activists, to members of the Congressional Black Caucus, several of whom have taken the weeklong “Food Stamp Challenge” — spending only the average SNAP benefit on groceries, to help raise awareness that SNAP simply does not provide enough money for sufficient food.

This month, we lift up everyone who has done and is doing their part to end hunger and poverty. We know that the goals are not yet achieved and the work not yet done. To achieve the goals that the United States adopted in September 2015 — which include ending hunger, all forms of malnutrition, and extreme poverty by 2030 — not only will Black leadership on all levels need to keep up the faithful work, but our incoming administration will need to match this commitment.

Here are two principles that would help the administration accomplish this:

1. Adopt a “do no harm” policy in every initiative proposed and implemented by the administration.

Block granting or eliminating safety net programs would do harm, particularly to people in the most vulnerable households, such as African American families led by single mothers. Turning to the much-needed support of WIC or SNAP is sometimes the only option for parents to feed their children.  Instead, the administration should focus on strengthening the safety net while also strengthening initiatives that help families become self-supporting — for example, training for better-paid jobs.

Repealing the Affordable Care Act would also do harm. Before the passage of the ACA, almost 30 percent of African Americans were uninsured. Now, the rate has been cut almost in half. Instead, the administration should focus either on fixing some of the problems in the ACA, or on developing a well-thought-through alternative that would keep African Americans insured at the same rates or higher, keep costs the same or lower, and keep access to high-quality health care the same or better.

Over-policing, incarcerating African Americans more often than others who commit the same offenses, and other injustices within the criminal justice system are broad areas where a lot of harm is done. We know from experience that neighborhoods cannot be made safe by “tough on crime” policies. In fact, high levels of incarceration leave children without parents and increase hunger and poverty rather than improving the lives of people who live in high-crime areas.

2. Ensure that communities with the highest levels of hunger, food insecurity, and poverty are not left behind.

Ironically, the poorest communities, particularly African American and other minority communities, are often either not included in anti-hunger and anti-poverty programs, or else not enough effort is made to remove barriers to their participation. More targeted approaches should be sought and implemented, and policies should be evaluated through the lens of their impact on the poorest families.  

Ensuring that both the “do no harm” and “no one left behind” principles are integral parts of policies and programs is a way for the administration to honor the hard anti-poverty and anti-hunger work being done by Black leaders and ordinary people alike at the local, state, and national levels.

It will take concerted efforts by every sector of society to end hunger, food insecurity, and poverty even in this wealthy country. This Black History Month coincides with the beginning of a new administration and the start of a new congressional session, the 115th. We can all take this opportunity to celebrate what has been accomplished so far and to urge new and returning leaders to take their places as full participants in the work ahead.

Marlysa D. Gamblin is special advisor for domestic policy, specific populations, at Bread for the World Institute.

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Rising seas will display millions of people. Graphic by Derek Schwabe/Bread for the World Institute.

from our Resource Library

For Education

For Faith

  • Unity Declaration on Racism and Poverty

    A diverse body of Christian leaders calls on the churches and Congress to focus on the integral connection.

    Dear Members of Congress,

    As the president and Congress are preparing their plans for this year, almost 100 church leaders—from all the families of U.S. Christianity—are...

  • In Times Like These … A Pan-African Christian Devotional for Public Policy Engagement

    This devotional guide invites deepened relationship with and among Pan-Af­rican people and elected leaders in the mission to end hunger and poverty.

  • Sermon by David Beckmann at Duke University Chapel

    Remarks delivered October 1, 2017 at Duke University Chapel in Chapel Hill in North Carolina.

    Thank you for inviting me to preach here at Duke University Chapel. And I especially want to thank the Bread for the World members who have come this morning.

    Bruce Puckett urged...

For Advocacy

  • Grassroots Advocacy Toolkit

    A set of how-to sheets for carrying out advocacy and fact sheets on the current issues Bread for the World is working on.

    For new and current Bread grassroots hunger activists.

    Ideal as a starter toolkit for new Bread activists or as a set of updates for current activists.


  • U.S. Hunger and Poverty State Fact Sheets

    These fact sheets provide a snapshot of hunger and poverty in the United States and in each state plus Washington, D.C. 

  • Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017

    Unnecessarily long prison sentences, combined with the lack of rehabilitative programs for people in prison, exacerbate hunger, poverty, and existing inequalities.

    Overly harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences have contributed to the rapid increase of our country’s prison population. The...


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