Obligations to Others: Hunger in America

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In my previous essay, I considered various stock arguments in favor of the claim that we have obligations to people we do not know. In this essay I will consider a rather concrete matter of obligation, namely that of hunger in the United States of America.

The United States is known as the wealthiest nation on the planet and also as a country that is facing an obesity epidemic. As such, it probably seems rather odd to claim that America faces a serious problem with hunger. Sadly, this is the case and the matter was featured in Tracie McMillan’s “The New Face of Hunger” in August 2014 issue of National Geographic. Out of a total population of 313.9 million people, 48 million Americans are food insecure, which is a contemporary term for the hungry. In terms of demographics, over half of the food insecure are white and over half are people who live outside of the cities. 72% of recipients are children, senior citizens and the disabled.  Two thirds of families on food stamps have at least one employed adult. The reason why these employed adults need assistance is declining wages: people can work multiple jobs and still not earn enough to buy adequate food. These facts run counter to the usual stereotypes often exploited by politicians.

The United States does have a program to address hunger—what was once called food stamps is now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). While the program paid out $75 billion to about 48 million people in 2013, the average recipient received $133.07 a month (under $1.50 per meal). On average, SNAP recipients run out of money after three weeks and then turn to charity, such as food pantries and other assistance for the hungry. Of the 48 million recipients, 17.6 million lack the resources to provide for even their basic food needs.

The federal government also provides an indirect means of providing food—taxpayer money subsidizes the production of certain crops. Corn gets the lion’s share of subsidies and is distantly followed by wheat and soybeans. Rice, sorghum, peanuts, barley and sunflowers also receive some subsidies while the only subsidized fruit is the apple. Because of the subsidies, food products that include or involve corn, wheat or soybeans tend to be the cheapest. As such, it is not surprising that low-income people get most of their calories from such foods. Examples include sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, chicken, grain-based desserts, tacos and pizza.  These foods tend to be high calorie and low nutrition foods.

Also impacting the diet of low income people is the existence of food deserts: areas that lack supermarkets but have fast food restaurants and small markets (like convenience stores). A surprising number of Americans live in these food deserts and do not own a car that would allow them to drive to buy healthier (and cheaper) food. For example, 43,000 people in Houston, Texas lack a car and live over a half mile from a grocery store. The food sold at these places tends to be more expensive than the food available at a grocery store and they tend to be high calorie, low-nutrient foods.

These two factors help explain the seeming paradox of an obesity epidemic among hungry people: people have easier access to high calorie foods that have low nutritional value. Hence, people tend to be overweight while also being malnourished. Now that the nature of the problem has been discussed, I now turn to the matter of obligations to others.

On the face of it, the main issue regarding obligations to the hungry would seem to focus on whether or not there is an obligation to provide people with food. This can be broken down into two sub-categories. First, whether or not there is a collective obligation to provide hungry citizens with food via the machinery of the state (in this case, SNAP). Second, whether or not there is an obligation on the part of better-off citizens to provide food to their hungry fellow citizens.

Arguing that the state has such an obligation is fairly straightforward. A basic obligation of the state is to provide for the good of the people and to protect them from harm. While the traditional focus is on the state providing military and police forces, this would certainly seem to extend to protecting citizens from starving.

A utilitarian argument can also be advanced in favor of this obligation: helping to feed millions of citizens creates more utility than disutility. Part of this is the obvious fact that people are happier when they have food to eat. Part of this is the less obvious fact that when people get hungry enough, open rebellion seems better than starving to death—so feeding the poor helps maintain social stability.

One stock objection against this view is to contend that providing such support creates a culture of dependence that encourages people to stay poor. The obvious counter to this is that, as noted above, those receiving the aid are mostly people who are seniors, disabled or children—people who should not be expected to labor to survive. Also, as noted above, two thirds of the families that received SNAP have at least one working adult. People are not on SNAP because they turn down opportunities—they are on SNAP because of the lack of opportunities.

The matter becomes rather more controversial when the issue switches to whether or not better off individuals are obligated to assist their fellow citizens. This, of course, means apart from paying taxes that help fund SNAP. Such assistance might involve donating money, time or food.

Intuitively, people tend to think that assisting others in this way is a nice thing to do and worthy of praise. However, people also tend to think that there is no obligation to do this and that someone who does not assist others in this way is not a bad person. This does have some appeal—after all, being bad is typically seen as an active thing rather than merely not doing good things.

Turning back to the general arguments for obligations to others, there are religious injunctions to feed the hungry (which explains why American churches are typically on the front line in the war against hunger), and it is easy to reverse the situation: if I were hungry, I would want my fellow citizens to help me. As such, I should help them when I am well off.

The utilitarian argument also applies here: a person who gives a little to help the hungry will incur a small cost (but might gain in happiness) but it will yield greater happiness on the part of the recipients who now have something to eat. As such, the utilitarian argument would seem to nicely ground this obligation. Of course, there is the stock objection about building dependence.

Rational self-interest would also seem to provide a reason to provide such aid—there are plenty of selfish reasons to do so, not the least of which is gaining a good reputation and helping to keep the hungry from revolting.

The debt argument might work here as well—if a person has benefited from the assistance of others, then she would be obligated to repay that debt. However, a person could contend that as long as they have not received food from others when hungry, he owes nothing.

The argument from virtue obviously applies here: the virtue of generosity obligates a person to give to others in need. This, and the religious injunction, would seem to be the truest forms of actual obligation—as opposed to merely doing it from self-interest or for utility.

Digging deeper, there is also another issue. As noted above, people are hungry primarily because they are not earning enough to purchase adequate food. One reason for this is that wages have consistently declined for most Americans, although the profits of businesses have steadily increased. As such, the United States is the wealthiest country in the world, yet has many very poor people. This raises the moral issue of whether or not employers are obligated to pay a living wage—a wage that would enable a person to purchase food on that salary without requiring the assistance of the state or others.

Businesses obviously have a strong self-interest in not doing so—lower wages mean greater profits and shifting the cost to other people (taxpayers and those who contribute to food pantries) means that their workers survive despite the lack of a living wage. However, there is still the moral question of whether or not they have an obligation to provide such a living wage.

The religious injunctions would seem to apply to employers that accept these specific faiths—and companies that wish to claim they are religious should be obligated to act the part. However, secular companies can easily claim exemption.

Reversing the situation would also apply: presumably those running businesses would not want to be so poorly paid. Of course, they would probably claim that as job creators there is a relevant difference.

The utilitarian argument does involve some complexities. After all, there can be very good utilitarian arguments for allowing some people to suffer so as to produce greater utility for others—so a case could be made that the utility generated outweighs the disutility of the low pay. However, the opposite sort of argument can also be made.

The debt argument would also apply. If corporations are people or at least are fictions that are run by people, then they would have a debt to the others that make civilization possible. As such, they should pay back this debt, perhaps in the form of decent wages.

The virtues of fairness and generosity would seem to obligate employers to pay employees fairly and this should be a living wage, at least in many cases. If corporations are people, then they should surely be held to the same obligations as actual people.

Thus, it would seem that there are good reasons to accept that we are obligated to help others.


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  1. I agree that I have an obligation to help starving or hungry people, not just in my own country, but in all nations.

    By the way, I live more than a half mile from the nearest supermarket, do not own a car and walk, generally twice a week, to the supermarket and back carrying my groceries. I am 68 years old. For those who don’t want to carry the groceries, they sell lots of wheeled bags these days which allows a person to transport their groceries a certain distance without the strain on the back of carrying them.

    You mention that lots of poor people are obese and walking is an excellent form of exercise.

    I have noticed that poor people in my own neighborhood, rather than walk to the supermarket, which is cheaper and has a greater variety of produces, especially fruits and vegetables, often buy their groceries in over-priced small stores nearer their homes.

  2. I would like a fuller explanation of the food desert phenomenon. My town, which is fairly small, has 4 supermarkets plus 2 farm stands. When I lived in Meriden, CT, which is quite poor and fairly large, there were two supermarkets easily accessible for me, and at least three others in the city. But, Hartford, which is bigger has only one that I can think of. Who is keeping the supermarkets out? I’m sure the people would shop there, so I don’t think it’s the supermarkets staying away. I can’t imagine city hall wouldn’t love a supermarket or ten. Do the convenience stores lobby against it? I just don’t understand.

  3. Malthus argued that people are doomed to remain at near starvation level as growth in food production, which increases at an arithmetic rate, is negated by the geometrical increase in population. He argued that state welfare systems, aimed at improving the poor, compound the problem they are supposed to solve, because however much help one gives the poor, there will be that many more of them in the next generation.

    Increase in modern technology on food production has probably been the main reason Malthusianism has not been noticed or popular in America. Considering the obesity problem it is hard to understand there is any problem. On the other hand, China has been actively pursuing a neo-Malthus program for food and population control.

    If (or when) technology reaches an asymptote in food production then a purely philanthropic obligation to feed the starving would be unsuccessful.

  4. Gene,

    Good questions.

    There are some opposing views to the idea that food deserts are a problem: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2014/02/food_deserts_and_fresh_food_access_aren_t_the_problem_poverty_not_obesity.html

    As far as why they exist, the stock reasons given are economic-that there would not be adequate profits to have markets in poor areas such that they are within .5 miles of most people.

    One obvious consideration is that having markets within .5 miles of most of the population would be a very dense level of markets which would most likely not be sustainable.

  5. Thanks for the link. It kind of makes me think Keynes was right and we need to push for a 20 hour work week. Or maybe a universal guaranteed income.

  6. Mike;

    Thank you for the series. Some interesting information; in the USA the health care costs associated with obesity are around 200 billions dollars a year. How many people can we feed by just having a healthier lifestyle?
    The health care costs associated with smoking are 100 billion a year.
    These numbers do not make sense and reflect a lot of self inflicted suffering in our society. Do we have a responsibility as a whole? I believe we do, we are not administering our resources in a reasonable and mindful way.
    But there is a different way of thinking that does not agree. As a result of our freedom, we can choose to hurt ourselves as individuals and as a society – the market reflects our choices. Even though I strongly believe in freedom and markets, I also believe in common sense and humanity to restore balance to what in my opinion is craziness. How can we fund food supplies for the needy while preventing obesity? A forum of creative ideas is needed.

  7. Gene,

    In the United States, there is significant emotional and ideological commitment to the notion that “work is a blessing” and that it would be sinful to not work hard. Some might say that this is part of the opiate fed to the masses so that they will toil for those sitting on the thrones of gold (or derivatives).

  8. John M.,

    If people did live healthier lifestyles, that could allow some funds to be re-directed. But, it is worth considering that the money spent on health care does go to pay people and they use that to put food on their tables.

    I’m split on the collective responsibility issue. On the one hand, I believe that people have a moral right to self-abuse (to make poor choices regarding their well being, such as not exercising, smoking, and riding motorcycles without helmets). On the other hand, I have also argued that people are obligated to bear the cost of their poor choices, so if someone wants to smoke, drink and not exercise, then she is obligated to fund the cost of her poor choices. That is, while there is a moral right to self-abuse, there is not a moral right to having others pay the price for that abuse.

    Fighting obesity would require changes in federal subsidies (in the US and similar countries), an educational effort, and probably changes in what SNAP can buy.

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