WE HAVE MET the poor and, if they aren't us, they could be someone we know, or will know at some point.
That's the implication of a study published in a medical journal this week. It says that nearly half - 49.2 percent - of all American children get food stamps at some point between the ages of 1 and 20. Among African-American families, the number is a stunning 90 percent.
The study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, is based on an analysis of data collected from annual interviews of thousands of households every year from 1968 to 1997. During that time, the U.S. economy went through a series of booms and busts. And during those times, nearly half of the children lived in households that received food stamps - some for only a few months, some for longer. Many households had to resort to food stamps several times over the years.
If you qualify for food stamps, you are by definition struggling. To be eligible, a household income must be below 130 percent of the official poverty line - in 2009, that means an annual take-home pay of $22,000 for a family of four - with assets under $2,000. So, long before the current economic catastrophe sent unemployment, and underemployment, soaring, American children were poorer and more at risk of hunger than most of us knew, maybe because food-stamp use is not something many recipients like to talk about. The true situation could be even more dire, says Mark Rank, a professor at the Washington University of St. Louis and one of the study's co-authors: Many families that are eligible to get food stamps don't get them.
Children living in poverty are not only at risk for not having enough of the food that will make them healthy and active, they also are more likely to suffer other health problems like low birth weight, lead poisoning, asthma, mental health disorders, delayed immunization and dental problems.
But now the "safety net" that should have been ready to catch these children is weak, and under stress from decades of cuts that were made when a majority of Americans concluded that they would never need help themselves.
Well, guess what. It also likely means that at least some Americans who once complained about having to pay taxes to support the poor will find themselves needing food stamps. The recession is estimated to move three million to four more million kids into poverty to join the 14 million already there - a situation that an editorial in the same journal called "the greatest level of material deprivation" that pediatricians would see in their careers.
A Department of Agriculture report due out in 10 days likely will confirm the growth of "food insecurity" in the country.
If the current jolt to the financial security of millions of Americans won't do it, what will convince us to rebuild the safety net while we restructure an economy that allows workers to earn enough to support their families?
When conservative ideologues tag as "fiscal child abuse" the stimulus package or health-care reform or anything that involves spending tax money - except on wars - we have to ask: What do you call the fact that kids are going hungry today? *