A Philosopher's Blog

Obligations to Others: Hunger in America

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 12, 2014
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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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2 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on September 14, 2014 at 10:28 am

    “Out of a total population of 313.9 million people, 48 million Americans are food insecure, which is a contemporary term for the hungry. ”

    Mike, is that 48 million statistic before or after they have received benefits from the government?

    In many cases, these statistics are before counting government assistance, and so these numbers will never change no matter how much government assistance is provided.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 15, 2014 at 11:47 am

      Based on the data, it seems that there are 48 million food insecure people, prior to government support. 17.6 million are apparently still lacking adequate food even with the SNAP support.

      I’d still count people getting SNAP as food insecure-they have to rely on the state and the SNAP program could be cut even more. I’d consider food secure people to be those who can reliably acquire food via their own income/efforts. Of course, many of those folks are one pink slip or downgrade away from being food insecure.

      That 48 million people are on SNAP is a sign of a deep problem in our economic system, most especially in the case of people who work full time or multiple jobs, yet still earn too little to be food secure. Walmart collects food donations for employees and McDonalds helpfully recommended that employees take a second job.


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