Black Hunger Overlooked in News Reports About Food Stamps

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Author: 
Nadra Kareem Nittle
May 24, 2011

Amid the myriad news stories about the recession, budget deficit and housing crisis are articles in the media suggesting that economic recovery is imminent. In recent months, for example, countless headlines proclaimed that the nation was rebounding from the economic downturn because the U.S. employment rate was declining.

In early May, publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Mail announced that the number of Americans dependent on food stamps had leveled off after peaking during the recession.  But a deeper analysis of these issues reveals that African-Americans remain in financial crisis and, thus, highly reliant on food assistance.

Given that both Democrats and Republicans have proposed to reduce the budget deficit by slashing services for the needy, it’s important that the media not overlook that communities of color disproportionately rely on such services.  Recovery may be years, or even decades away, for many minority communities; proposals to limit social services only add to the structural challenges they face in their struggle to survive.

Citing figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Wall Street Journal reported on May 3 that the number of Americans on food stamps “has begun to flatten in recent months, which may mean that as the economy is improving, fewer Americans are seeking to join the program.” The Journal could have completed this analysis by identifying the groups of Americans most likely to continue relying on food stamps. Other than listing the states with the largest dependency on food stamps, however, the Journal made no effort to identify the people most in need of assistance.

Nonetheless, the state data tells much about race and food assistance. A dozen states are more reliant on food stamps than others. Among those, nine have minority populations of 10 percent or more, with Mississippi  and New Mexico having black and Latino populations, respectively, of 37.2 and 45.6 percent. Mississippians depend on food stamps more than Americans in any other state, but the Journal failed to consider how the high number of African-Americans contributes to the state’s food stamp totals.

Indeed, Blacks in Mississippi and nationwide suffer from hunger in great numbers. In February, the Bread for the World Institute released a report called “Poverty and Hunger Among African-Americans.”  It signaled that black dependence on food assistance isn’t likely to decline soon.

According to the report, African Americans make up 22.5 percent of the participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the Food Stamp Program). That’s about 10 percent higher than their percentage in the general population. Additionally, while one in four black households struggle to put food on the table, only one in seven of all U.S. households do.  

Clearly, the Wall Street Journal could have reported a more comprehensive story by including data such as this in their article.  

“Communities of color have been experiencing recession-like numbers since before the recession,” said Derrick Boykin, Northeast regional organizer for Bread for the World. “When tough times fall upon the average citizen, that means tougher times for African Americans.”

It’s imperative that media outlets look beyond statistics related to the general population and also consider groups that have historically struggled.  For a full economic recovery in America, disadvantaged groups must also begin to make gains.

Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Wisconsin-based program the Hunger Task Force, said that the news media can paint a more comprehensive picture of hunger in the U.S. by interviewing the staffers of food pantries, welfare agencies and hunger advocacy groups instead of just relying on government data.  She questioned whether the number of hungry Americans is actually on the decline, noting that many people don’t realize they qualify for food assistance. She also said that language barriers can make it difficult for some people to complete the application process.

Tussler said that it’s very evident in her region that there’s a link between ethnicity and hunger. For example, her organization recently surveyed people who’ve used the food pantries of Hunger Task Force. It found that although blacks make up just 27 percent of people in Milwaukee County, Wis., they make up 41 percent of the agency’s food clients. In contrast, whites make up 68 percent of the county and 38 percent of food clients.

“The numbers are inverted,” Tessler said.

As for why African-American hunger is an issue that often fails to make headlines, Tessler said that hunger is easy to ignore.

“You can’t see hunger,” she said. “You can see homelessness. You don’t look at people at a bus stop and say, ‘That one is hungry.’ That’s not the assumption people make.”

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