Sasha Abramsky is the author of “Breadline, U.S.A.,” a new book about hunger in America. He is a senior fellow with the New York-based think tank Demos, but lives in Sacramento with his wife and two children. His previous work includes the 2007 book American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment.
What was your main goal for writing this book?
I was basically trying to explore problems that I knew existed and didn’t have the spotlight shining on them. I wanted to dig deep, tell the stories that weren’t being reported. It’s a story about poverty, growing economic inequality, and what happens when that kind of economic crisis happens.
Why did you change your focus from crime and prison, the focus of your first three books, to the issue of hunger?
I reported on criminal justice not because I found crime particularly interesting, but because it’s about how we as a society are dealing with poverty. I do like being a specialist, but I like changing my topic occasionally. It’s a new way of telling stories. I think that’s why I moved in that direction.
How did you go about preparing for and researching this book?
Here in Sacramento I’ve done a few big stories on the subject for the Sacramento News and Review, and also for the London Guardian, and for Mother Jones and The Nation. I visited places like Idaho, Northern California. I realized a couple of years ago this is going to be more than a series of articles, but a full book. I’ve done an awful lot of legwork and research.
How prevalent is hunger within the United States?
Pretty prevalent. It depends on the definition. There are about 30 million on food stamps, and you can safely assume there are about a million people who qualify for food stamps but aren’t receiveing them. Then there are ten to fifteen million people that are just too affluent for food stamps. You’re looking at a problem where about one in five Americans are anxious about food. The government actually has a term for it—they call it “low food security.” They say about 10 or 11 percent have low food security and 3 percent have very low food security.
What factors do you think are responsible for that current status?
An awful lot of breakdowns in the economic calculus. Things like the minimum wage not keeping up with inflation, the unemployment crisis that’s going on at the moment. A big problem is gas prices going up and down like a yo-yo. It’s a budgeting problem, with families spending much of their food budget on gas money. The way I see it is that hunger isn’t really the cause, it’s the consequence.
Is this an American problem or part of a larger, global food crisis?
It’s a part of it, but it’s playing out a little bit separately. The food crisis that’s wracking the Third World is a question of a supply, with a huge inflation of the price of food in those countries, making them literally not able to buy any food. In both situations there’s a percent of the population that’s being pressed out of the market. In poor countries, the problem is there’s literally not enough food. In this country, we have some food inflation, but not too much. The food is there but we’re not able to distribute it equally, as the market mechanism is breaking. The end result is very similar, though we do have programs, private charities that intervene to a degree. What it results most in is insecurity.
How does the problem of hunger today compare to the issue during the Great Depression?
There are points of similarities and that’s the point of the title of my book. We think of the Great Depression as a distant point of history, as something that could never happen in the modern age, but the Depression was about people losing their jobs, and that’s what we’re starting to see here. When you talk to people, at the food pantries, who actually give out food, they’ll tell you that it’s the working poor that are showing up at the doorstep, that have jobs but are unable to make ends meet.
What has the Obama Administration been doing to address the problem of hunger? Do you think enough is being done?
I think they’re doing some smart things. They’ve raised the amount of food stamps by a few dollars a week, they’ve pushed for a higher minimum wage, they’ve pushed for health insurance. They’ve talked about some innovative new things like turning in old cars, Cash for Clunkers, in return for cash. They’re going in the right direction, I think. While they certainly can be doing more, their heart is in the right place.