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More on Budget Cuts, Hunger and Poverty

By Mark Bittman on March 30, 2011
© New York Times

A little more about the fast, the budget cuts and the protests. (Here’s my Opinion piece if you haven’t seen it.)

David Beckmann, head of Bread for the World, is one of the prime organizers of the fast. Here’s his explanation, on HuffPo, of why he’s fasting. A number of other organizations have joined in, among them the Congressional Hunger Center, Islamic Relief USA and the Meals on Wheels Association of America. Jo Luck, Mr. Beckmann’s World Food Prize co-laureate and the chief executive of Heifer International, is also fasting. Heifer is a great story: Its founder, Dan West, was a Midwestern farmer and relief worker during the Spanish Civil War. While handing out rations of milk to hungry children, he had an epiphany: “These children don’t need a cup, they need a cow.” In 1944, 17 heifers were sent to families in Puerto Rico, New York and Pennsylvania (some of the youngest beneficiaries of the grant had never tasted milk). Now, it’s an Arkansas-based non-profit that gives livestock (chicks, ducks, geese, sheep, cows) and tree seedlings to the poor.

Beckmann credits Tony Hall with the germ of the idea for this current fast. Hall is a former Democratic congressman from Ohio and an altogether interesting character, a pro-choice born-again Christian. It isn’t his first big-time fast: In the 1990s he fasted for 22 days as part of a similar stand against budget cuts to food programs for the poor.

I discussed only the food-related cuts in the House budget appropriations bill, but there are some egregious and ridiculous non-food related cuts, highlighted in this nifty little summary. One little waste of money that isn’t going to be cut: the millions that the defense department spends to sponsor cars in Nascar races. Phew.

If you only click once on this post, make it here, on this infographic, compiled by the Center for American Progress. It offers a side-by-side comparison of tax breaks for the wealthy vs. cuts to the programs that benefit the poor; incredible.

What’s poverty? Poverty guidelines have not changed since the 1960s: “A family is counted as poor if its pretax money income is below its poverty threshold,” which is $11,161 for a single adult — think about that! — and $17,286 for a couple with one child.

The poverty rate in 1959 was nearing 40 million. It dipped to about 23 million in 1973, only to rise again in the early 1990s to about 39 million. But the poverty rate in America in 2009 was the highest it’s been in the last 50 years, at about 43.6 million.

Twenty percent of all children under 18 live in poverty, totaling 15.45 million; children of color are disproportionately affected. Poor people, of course, spend a greater portion of their income on food than the wealthy; when income increases, the portion of income spent on food decreases, and the biggest increase in food prices in 36 years was recorded this month. Rising food costs have led to rioting in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso and Cameroon, among other places.

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