I would love to be upbeat in this column. After all, it’s the holiday season, a time to gather family and friends into our homes and be thankful as we eat, drink and celebrate. But there are cancers growing in our society, and like any aggressive cancer, they are metastasizing as they grow—wiping out health, hope and happiness along the way.
Hunger has always been an issue in America. Emergency food programs and services are not new. Soup kitchens are one of the enduring images from the Great Depression in the 20th Century. The need to ensure that women and children receive adequate nutrition gave rise to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). School lunch programs are known to provide the best nutrition that many low and moderate income (“LMI”) children receive at any point during the day. The problems the elderly face in efforts to stave off hunger are also well-known. According to the Hunger in America 2010 report released by Island Harvest, there has been a 21% increase in unduplicated annual clients on Long Island since the 2006 report, which means that an estimated 283,700 of our neighbors are receiving food assistance.
Yes, the cancer of hunger has existed in America since its founding. But because of the other societal cancers America is fighting, we haven’t been adequately focused on hunger. The cancer that started with the foreclosure crisis has grown into the aggressive cancer that we see in rising rates of homelessness. Six percent of the Long Island respondents in the Island Harvest report were homeless. As Americans struggle to keep shelter, the cancer of hunger has spread. Island Harvest and Long Island Cares report that 49% of clients surveyed reported they had to choose between buying food or paying their rent or mortgage.
Joblessness is showing itself to be a dangerous cancer that is resistant to treatment. With a national unemployment rate hovering around 9%, unemployment and under-employment have driven many Long Islanders out of the middle class and into poverty. 63% of Long Islanders served by Island Harvest and Long Island Cares had “annual incomes that fell below the federal poverty level or less than $17,163 per year for a household of three.” As Americans and Long Islanders aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from, politicians have made joblessness a political hot potato, not the crisis it is.
The cancers of racism, classism and reduced access to quality educational opportunity are also growing, virtually unchecked, in this environment. The accusations of laziness or “welfare mentality” leveled at those struggling with many, if not all of society’s cancers, are disrespectful and insensitive. It also misses the mark. As Americans, we still value and encourage independence and personal responsibility. When did caring about our neighbors with compassion and generosity, which lacks judgment and negativity, stop being an American value? One of the key treatments for the cancers that afflict us is the recognition that few members of the middle class can guarantee that any of these fates couldn’t befall us. This same humanity should inform the policy changes that are so desperately needed to defeat our society’s cancers.