Spotlight Exclusives

Better Paying Jobs Are Key to Fighting Hunger

Todd Post, Bread for the World Institute Todd Post, Bread for the World Institute, posted on

Fifty years ago, one in three people in the world experienced chronic hunger. Today, the hunger rate has plummeted to one in nine. But major news sources don’t tell us much about successful efforts against global hunger unless you happen to be reading an article by Nick Kristoff, Michael Gerson, or a rare guest columnist.

The only news that most people hear about global hunger is on famine and near-famine in countries such as South Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia. It is not surprising that polls show that nine in 10 Americans don’t realize how much progress has been made.

The main driver of the progress against hunger made in so many other developing countries has been steady economic growth that made it possible to invest more in programs that fight poverty. Growth is the result of expanded international trade and government, and donor investments in health, education, agriculture, and infrastructure.

The United States has also reduced hunger in the last 50 years, but unlike the progress in developing countries, this is due mainly to the expansion of government programs that help low-income families. Government programs remain indispensable in preventing a return to a time when children in the United States did face starvation—for example, the conditions shown in the 1968 CBS documentary Hunger in America.

But earned income is a more empowering and sustainable way to reduce hunger than help from government programs. Ending hunger in the United States for good requires higher incomes for people who work in low-wage jobs. For those who drill below the topline numbers in USDA’s annual Household Food Security reports, you see that poverty and food insecurity are not interchangeable. In 2016, there were more food-insecure households with incomes above the poverty line than below it. Families can earn more than the poverty threshold yet still struggle to put food on the table.

Every month, millions of households with at least one wage earner—and often with two workers—rely on federal nutrition programs such as SNAP or seek assistance from the nation’s emergency food system.  In a nation as rich as the United States, it is striking that so many jobs do not guarantee that workers and their families will have basic food security. While the incomes of the country’s wealthiest families have soared in recent decades, the earned incomes of nearly everyone else have stagnated.

Bread for the World advocates for people who are hungry in the United States and around the world. Founded more than 40 years ago, the organization remains true to its roots as a collective Christian voice urging the nation’s political leaders to support programs and policies to end hunger. In Bread for the World Institute’s 2018 Hunger Report: The Jobs Challenge: Working to End Hunger by 2030, we argue that better job opportunities for both Americans and workers in the developing world can be mutually reinforcing.

The year 2030 in the report’s title is not arbitrary. It coincides with the deadline to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a package of 17 interrelated development goals that includes the goal of ending hunger. The SDGs were formally approved at the UN General Assembly in 2015, following years of negotiations to come up with a package all the member countries could agree on. The United States, along with virtually every other country, has adopted the SDGs.

The fact that the U.S. government agrees to something at the United Nations, however, doesn’t mean it will follow through.  It’s up to citizens to hold leaders accountable. Jeffrey Sachs, a renowned economist and prominent supporter of the SDGs here in the United States, has adapted them into America’s Goals for 2030.  This is a blueprint that can be used not only at the federal level, but also by state and local governments.

Low-wage workers in the United States and their counterparts in developing countries all stand to benefit from a world where every country is making efforts to achieve the SDGs. In an interdependent world, each country’s economic and social progress depends, in part, on progress in other countries. The fastest-growing markets for U.S. goods and services are in developing countries. That means, of course, that the growth of the U.S. economy and job market depends on the continued prosperity of developing countries. Many U.S. workers stuck in jobs that don’t pay enough to meet their basic needs believe instead that gains in developing countries are threatening their own prosperity. Among the many reasons to help struggling American workers is the fact that if their economic situations don’t improve, many will oppose U.S. policies that are important to enabling developing countries—our customers—to increase their own prosperity.

Todd Post is a senior researcher, writer, and editor with Bread for the World Institute.

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