Spotlight Exclusives

How The States Can Lead The Fight Against Hunger

Joel Berg Joel Berg, posted on

Anti-poverty activists in both parties worry that the chaotic opening day of the new Congress on Tuesday may be the first taste of two years of bitterly divided government that results in few concrete policy achievements. With that in mind, Hunger Free America CEO Joel Berg has written a new policy paper for state leaders offering “a significant number of common-sense, practical, and affordable ways that state governors and legislatures can slash hunger, cut poverty, enact a comprehensive food plan, boost economic opportunity, reduce diet-related diseases, and bolster the middle class.” Berg specifically urges state leaders to invest in policies to increase economic opportunity such as raising the minimum wage and making existing anti-hunger benefits easier to access. Berg spoke with Spotlight to offer some context for his paper, the full text of which can be accessed here. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What was the idea behind this paper?

Well, you know, necessity is the mother of invention. As it is unlikely that there will be much legislative progress in Washington over the next two years — and I’m not even sure how much executive branch progress we’re going to have, given how much the Biden administration already did in its first two years — our best hope in many states is state government. My hope was this paper helps better inform governors and state legislators about what they can do, rather than us just throwing up our hands and saying, ‘Washington is broken, we can’t do anything.’ On the other hand, I’m clear that Washington still has a huge role, and I don’t want this to be used as an excuse by policy makers in D.C. that, oh well, the states can do it, so we don’t have to. So, it’s a fine balance.

The other thing that motivated me is that in many states, the first and major response to the pandemic hunger crisis was to dramatically increase food distribution. I’ve tried to respectively and diplomatically — though my diplomatic, respectful manner is pretty direct — argue that is like making your top response to global warming to buy everyone life rafts. When I talk about raising wages and economic development, people say, ‘That’s pie in the sky Joel.’ “ But that’s far more politically realistic than dramatically increasing government spending on programs like SNAP. I always try to put poverty in the greater context of economic opportunity. That it’s not just about giving people, redistributive benefits, but really helping people enter and stay in the middle class. The vision for low-income, struggling families in America isn’t bigger, better government handouts. It’s to enter the economic mainstream.

Raising the minimum wage is one policy that we’ve seen bipartisan support for in a number of states, including in referendums during the midterm elections. What are some other policies changes that you think might be possible at the state level?

In general, it’s what I call an assets empowerment agenda and helping people move from owing to owning. One thing that embodies this approach is the Hope Act, that Congressman (Joe) Morelle (D-N.Y.) and Senator (Kirsten) Gillibrand (D-N.Y. have proposed that does two things: help people apply for multiple benefits through a single online portal and start pilot projects to help low-income people save for a down payment on the first home, to start a new business, or for retirement in partnership with a nonprofit group and a local government agency.

Another idea is making better use of AmeriCorps, the program Bill Clinton started, to help fight against hunger while also modernizing it to allow participants to get a free college education.

Rewarding work is a central theme of everything I’m proposing. I generally oppose work requirements on existing programs. That being said, I generally think that universal living wage jobs are a better approach than a universal basic income where Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk get the same paycheck that a low-income working family does.

The full text of Berg’s paper can be found here.


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