Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

January 18, 2005

Hunger in America

Filed under: — Different River @ 2:48 pm

Jane Galt debunks the latest hunger numbers, which, if taken seriously, would imply that there is substantial overlap between the portion of the poor population that’s obese and the portion that of the poor population that can’t afford enough food to survive.

One of the truly amazing facts of everyday life in America today is that we are one of the few societies in the history of the world in which there are poor people who are fat. Typically, “poor” has meant “can’t afford enough to eat.” In Leo Rosten and Leonard Ross’ 1937 novel set in the early 20th-century, The Education of Hyman Kaplan, the title character, a student in an English-for-immigrants class, is asked what word is the opposite of “rich.” He responds, “skinny.” This is meant as an error, but an understandable one — in 1910, or for that matter in 1937, only the rich could afford enough food to become fat.

When I point this out to people, the most common response is, “Well yes, poor people are fat because they eat at McDonald’s, and all that meat is fattening.” Well yes, that’s the point — in times past, and in other countries, the poor can’t afford to eat meat, not in enough quantities to get fat, anyway. When the first McDonalds’ opened in Moscow in 1990, a burger cost the average worker two days’ wages. That’s an “average” worker, not a “poor” worker. In the Soviet Union, even aveage workers couldn’t afford to get fat at McDonald’s.

Dinesh D’Souza links the Soviet perception of America to that of a would-be immigrant from Bombay:

Indeed, newcomers to the United States are struck by the amenities enjoyed by “poor” people. This fact was dramatized in the 1980s when CBS television broadcast a documentary, “People Like Us,” intended to show the miseries of the poor during an ongoing recession. The Soviet Union also broadcast the documentary, with a view to embarrassing the Reagan administration. But by the testimony of former Soviet leaders, it had the opposite effect. Ordinary people across the Soviet Union saw that the poorest Americans have TV sets, microwave ovens and cars. They arrived at the same perception that I witnessed in an acquaintance of mine from Bombay who has been unsuccessfully trying to move to the United States. I asked him, “Why are you so eager to come to America?” He replied, “I really want to live in a country where the poor people are fat.”

(Emphasis added.) (I believe this story is retold in D’Souza’s book, What’s So Great About America?)

The fact is, in America, most people going to bed hungry do so because they are on a diet. Been there, done that.


Sidenote: I experienced a very nice blogger-moment when I realized that I’d been meaning for the last two weeks (that’s an eternity in blog-years!) to link to the above post by Jane Galt, with whom I’ve had no prior contact, when I realized she’d just linked to my Medicare post and sent me a torrent of readers. Thanks, Jane, and welcome to Jane’s readers!

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