Freedom from Want?

Lange-MigrantMother02
Migrant Mother (1936), photo by Dorothea Lange

The rich keep getting richer and everybody else keeps getting poorer according to a report released this week by the Pew Research Center. During the first two years of recovery after the Great Recession, the wealthiest 7% of Americans saw their average net worth increase 28% from 2009 to 2011 while the other 93% experienced a decline. The rising tide has not raised all boats; the vast majority of us are sinking while a tiny minority of the uber-wealthy are riding high.

The United States still has the world’s largest economy, but 46 million Americans don’t have enough healthy and nutritious food. An army of children go to bed hungry every night while we spend billions on our military. How can a nation founded on the principles of political and social equality tolerate such glaring economic inequality?

We justify the unequal outcomes of our free market system by promoting equal opportunity. But how can we talk about equal opportunity with a straight face when nearly 1 in 6 of Americans don’t have enough to eat or can only get enough calories by purchasing the least healthy foods which cause chronic illnesses associated with obesity, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease? The late Harvard political philosopher John Rawls argued that unequal outcomes can only be considered fair when equal opportunity is combined with the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society. In other words, a robust social safety net for the poorest among us. Our safety net is so broken that it can’t provide an effective means of satisfying the most basic human need: food.

The great irony about hunger in America is that there’s plenty of food to go around. The problem isn’t a lack of supply. The problem is that too many people don’t have enough money to buy food or can only afford the worst kind. Poverty is the cause of food insecurity. However, instead of waging a war on poverty, our government has spent trillions fighting regional wars overseas, justified with the mantra of “freedom.” In doing so, we have made a fool’s bargain. We have traded freedom from want for freedom from fear. But we will not be truly free until all Americans have enough to eat.

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