Putting Food on the Table, A Revolutionary Act in the US and UK? Prof. Kenneth Surin
In the early 1980s, when I was still working in the field of theology in the UK, a Latin American liberation theologian, repeatedly threatened by American-backed death squads, and repeatedly harassed by the charismatic but implacable Polish pope and the wily Ratzinger, his witch-hunter of supposed doctrinal deviants, said to me that when those in power create a situation where it becomes impossible to feed your children, putting food on the table becomes a revolutionary act.
Thatcher and Reagan had just taken office then, and the right-wing reaction initiated by them, did not, at that relatively early time, lead to any evident comparisons between the UK, the US, and the dire situation in Latin America referred to by the liberation theologian who was speaking to me.
Today, decades later, the basis for such comparisons may be a little more obvious.
It would of course be a gross exaggeration to say that overall levels of poverty and hunger in the US and UK match those of the Latin American countries.
In addition to hugely different GDP levels, there is no shortage of food in the US and UK– the obvious abundance of food apart, huge amounts of it discarded uneaten, the sheer quality of it in the US and UK is sumptuous for those with the requisite financial resources.
There are numerous Michelin-star restaurants in the US and UK, and none in the country this liberation theologian hails from. His country is probably too dangerous, even today, to merit a visit from the most daring Michelin inspectors, however many armed guards they may have in tow.
Despite not being at third-world levels, the degree of poverty and food insufficiency for the poor in the US and UK is shocking.
According to a survey conducted by the US Food Research and Action Center, 16% of surveyed American households indicated they experienced food hardship in 2015 (in Mississippi the rate was 23%).
In 2014, according to Worldhunger.org, children were food insecure at times during the year in 9.4% of US households with children (3.7 million households). These households were unable at times during the year to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children.
The root cause of hunger in the US is poverty and income inequality. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2014, there were 46.7 million people in poverty (up from 37.3 million in 2007). The number of poor people in that year is near the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty statistics have been published.
19.9 million Americans lived in extreme poverty in 2014, that is, their family’s cash income was less than half of the poverty line, or about $10,000 a year for a family of four in 2014. They represented 6.6% of all people and 44.6% of those in poverty.
The US poverty rate for children under 18 was 21.1% in 2014, numbering 15.5 million children. Children represented 23.3% of the total US population and 33.3% of people in poverty.
According to Bloomberg News, 1 in 7 Americans lives on food stamps. “Welfare reforms” (a euphemism used since Bill Clinton’s presidency to describe reductions in the social safety net) are placing caps and restrictions on access to food stamps. Republican politicians, committed to an ideologically-driven agenda of privatization and budget-reductions, are enthusiastic proponents of these caps and restrictions.
The equivalent of these Republican politicians in the UK are Conservatives ideologically committed to an austerity agenda. The Tories have been in power since 2010, with disastrous consequences for the poor and disadvantaged.
According to the Child Poverty Action Group 3.9 million children, or 28% of children, lived in poverty in the UK in 2014-15. According to the Children’s Society, the number has nearly doubled in the last 30 years.
The majority of these children are from families belonging to the working poor—66% of children growing up in poverty in the UK live in a family where at least one member works. This of course militates against stock conservative ideological talking-points about “shirkers” and “scroungers” who won’t work because they prefer to be welfare recipients.
The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that decisions made by the Conservative government since 2010 on taxes and welfare benefits will increase the number of children living in relative poverty (poverty figures before housing costs) from 2.3 to 3.6 million by 2020.
According to a Fabian Society report, “the number of occasions people in crisis were provided with food by the Trussell Trust food bank network grew from just under 129,000 occasions in 2011 to 2012 to over 1 million occasions in 2014 to 2015”.
The poor and disadvantaged in the UK and US have been betrayed by their ruling elites, who uphold an odious system which pretends it works for the common good while of course doing the opposite.
This is typified by the photo below, showing David Cameron, the UK prime minister from 2010 to 2016, at a podium with the slogan “A BRIGHTER, MORE SECURE FUTURE”, when his government adhered solidly and consistently to policies which cast the poor adrift, while increasing the wealth of the already rich.
A somewhat honest Conservative politician would have a podium slogan which read “A BRIGHTER, MORE SECURE FUTURE BUT ONLY FOR THE RICH”.
“Dodgy Dave” Cameron was however reading from an old script.
The Tory use of deceitful slogans goes as far back as the original architect of UK austerity, Margaret Thatcher, who was fond of proclaiming “WE’LL ALL WIN” (with her party of course) while espousing ruinous economic policies which ensured that only some would “win” (see photo at top).
For the growing numbers of the poor and hungry in some of the richest countries in the world, Adorno’s prescient dictum– that in such societies, the forces of reification being what they are, salvation is near enough to touch, but also an infinite distance away—while true, is certainly no consolation.
Food exists in abundance, but for the hungry and poor it might as well be an infinite distance away.
The above-mentioned liberation theologian knew what the solution had to be.
He was talking about Latin America then, today he might as well be talking about the UK and US.