For a few short weeks last spring, it seemed like the tectonic plates of America’s political consensus could be about to shift. Amid talk of massive public spending, enhanced support for the unemployed, and even the conscription of private industry under the Defense Production Act, it momentarily appeared that the pandemic might at least put a dent in decades of bipartisan aversion to social democracy and activist government.
Following an initial burst of activity, of course, Washington’s chronic addiction to markets and hostility to social welfare provisions soon returned, with resurgent spikes in COVID cases and lockdowns doing little to shake Beltway elites into a renewed sense of urgency. Amid continued economic turmoil, Americans haven’t received direct cash aid since a wave of $1,200 checks went out last spring. Enhanced unemployment benefits, which saved countless people from careering over a financial cliff, were quickly scaled back as senior Democrats and Republicans alike mused that they might make it harder for employers to hire. As Congress continues a series of fraught and tedious deliberations almost certain to yield an inadequate level of aid, both a federal moratorium on evictions and remaining unemployment assistance for 12 million people are set to expire by year’s end.
There can be no doubt that a more aggressive and activist federal response including measures similar to those undertaken in parts of Europe and Asia could have prevented a great deal of needless hardship. Whatever ultimately emerges from the current round of relief talks, the human consequences of Beltway complacency are becoming more visible every day, and recent reporting from the Washington Post underscores just how dire the situation has become.
According to a recent analysis by the paper, more Americans are currently going hungry than at any point in at least the past twenty-two years (1998 being the first year the Census Bureau started collecting the relevant data). According to a Census Bureau survey conducted in late October and early November, one out of every eight people reported not having enough to eat “sometimes or often” throughout the past week. Widespread hunger is now affecting some 26 million American adults, and the bureau’s top-line figure narrows to one in six in households with children.
These, of course, are only generalized figures — particular areas, groups, and populations being disproportionately affected by hunger.
Almost twice the overall rate, or some 22 percent, of black households reported going hungry in the survey. Much of the Post’s reporting centers on Houston, Texas, home to the country’s largest food bank and one of the cities worst hit by the growing hunger epidemic. In October, the Houston Food Bank reported a 45 percent increase in the amount of food it distributed, when compared against the same period from the previous year. One in five adults in the city are reportedly going hungry. Though the worst outbreaks of hunger are mostly in Southern states like Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, higher than average rates are also scattered in areas across the Midwest and even some coastal regions.
The situation has become so severe that many retailers and police departments are reporting a spike in shoplifting — particularly of consumables and household staples like bread, pasta, and baby food.
For a country whose political class so proudly clings to a story of national exceptionalism, these developments should be a dramatic wake-up call. While Americans have never benefited from social democratic institutions as robust as those found in many less wealthy European countries, decades of neoliberal orthodoxy have successfully ground their equivalents down to dust. During boom periods, the result is an economy that still leaves millions struggling and financially insecure.
Amid a global pandemic, the country’s aversion to welfarism and lack of a functioning social safety net is quite literally pushing tens of millions toward starvation.