A volunteer distributes food at CAMBA's Beyond Hunger Emergency Food Pantry on Feb. 18, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty

If the economy is up, why isn’t hunger going down?


This should be a time of plenty in our country, and a season of thanks, after six years of sputtering growth since the economy came crashing down in 2008. The stock market has rocketed back up, gross domestic product is expanding at a 2% clip, household debt is shrinking, housing has rebounded and prices are up. Most importantly, unemployment is at its lowest rate in six years, indicating that millions of people are back to work.

So how can we explain why the hunger that spiked at the beginning of the recession has not declined? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity increased from 10% to almost 15% of households during the financial crisis, and it has remained around this level since. More than 17 million households in our country are food insecure. If the economy is bouncing back, shouldn’t hunger be going down too?

“The ugly reality in today’s America is that hardworking people have jobs but are not earning enough to buy life’s essentials: rent, clothes, healthcare – even food.”
We at Oxfam America partnered with Feeding America, the leading organization fighting domestic hunger through a network of 58,000 food pantries, to dig into the data of the more than 46 million people who turn to Feeding America’s network of food banks. What we discovered is that more than half (54%) of Feeding America client households have at least one member who has worked for pay in the past 12 months. Most surprisingly, close to half (43%) of these working client households had at least one member who worked full-time in the past year.

The ugly reality in today’s America is that hardworking people have jobs but are not earning enough to buy life’s essentials: rent, clothes, healthcare – even food.

PHOTOS: One family, trying to put food on the table

Like many other American families, working households that seek charitable food assistance struggle to pay all of the bills necessary to sustain a family. Having to face wrenching choices – between paying for food or heating their home, buying medicine for a family member or making the mortgage – these families have found that tapping into the resources at a charitable food program ensures that, at the very least, there is enough to eat.

What’s more, these working families are not turning to food banks only in emergencies: In fact, most report depending on the local food pantry as part of their regular survival strategy.

People like Derek, a single parent who works full-time as a security guard for the St. Louis transit system. Despite long hours, he brings home so little money that he often goes to a local food pantry to be able to put a meal on the table for his three children. Working nights so that he can be with his kids during the day, Derek says that, despite his paycheck, “I still always come up short – between paying for clothes, insurance, school supplies. I knew I had to ask for help.”

The economic recovery hasn’t touched most Americans. In fact, 95% of the income gains since the recession have gone to the top 1% of earners, as most new jobs created have paid low wages, and the number of middle-income jobs has actually shrunk. About a third of all U.S. workers are paid less than $12 per hour, and most of these have no paid leave; no employer-provided health insurance; no pension plans, and often irregular hours in tenuous jobs. Millions work in retail, in restaurants, providing elder or child care, and in many other occupations that pay $8, $9, or $10 an hour—a far cry from a living wage. Worse yet, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that nearly half of new jobs created in the next decade will be in low-wage occupations.

“Nearly half of new jobs created in the next decade will be in low-wage occupations.”

Contrary to stereotypes that low-wage workers in America are young or have little education, the average age of workers earning less than $10 per hour is 35. Many support families, and 43% either have a four-year college education or have completed some college.

Although charitable feeding programs and government both play a vital role in supporting struggling Americans, they cannot be the long-term answer to hunger in the United States – particularly among those who work day in and day out for a meager living.

Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would benefit more than 25 million workers, including nine million parents and more than 15 million children. It would make it more likely that people who go to work every day would bring home enough money to pay the bills and put food on the table.

Instead of private donors and taxpayers feeding our hard-working neighbors, jobs should be paying wages that make sense, fiscally and ethically.

A higher minimum wage would mean people working a full-time job could earn more to sustain themselves and their family, and to find a path out of poverty. And that’s something we would all be thankful for.

Raymond C. Offenheiser is president of Oxfam America, a global anti-poverty organization.