December 2, 2009

Two student readings focus on the reasons for rising gas prices as well as the true social and environmental costs of oil, with discussion questions and an internet inquiry.

To the Teacher:

Although the recession may be over officially, tens of millions of Americans continue to suffer its effects, including rising joblessness and poverty, and what the government calls "food insecurity." The first student reading below discusses a Department of Agriculture program which found that 49 million Americans are suffering from a lack of food. The second considers widespread unemployment, how President Roosevelt's New Deal attacked that problem during the Great Depression, and some of the proposals being made now in the lead-up to a December job summit called by President Obama.

Discussion questions and suggestions for further inquiry and citizenship projects on hunger, joblessness and poverty follow.

For an earlier discussion of some of the issues discussed in these readings, see "The Roof is Caving In': Americans Are Still Losing Jobs & Homes" in the high school section.


Student Reading 1:

"Food insecurity"

"'I don't like letting nobody...know I'm hungry,'" Lewis Roman. 13, says. He lives in Philadelphia, and "sleeps in one room with his mother, brothers, and sister while he goes to school and tries to have a normal teenage life," according to a CBS News report.

"Lewis told me about trying to fall asleep (and sometimes not being able to) as a way to deal with hunger. He told me how he'll get so hungry that he'll feel like throwing up."
(Seth Doane, "The Personal Side of Hunger in America,", 6/5/09)

"49 Million Americans Report a Lack of Food" was a recent New York Times headline, here in the richest country on earth. "The number of Americans who lived in households that lacked consistent access to adequate food soared last year to 49 million, the highest since the government began tracking what it calls 'food insecurity' 14 years ago, the Department of Agriculture reported."

Many people lack food because they lack money, because they have no job. Though major banks and Wall Street have begun to recover from the deep recession, Main Street has not, and unemployment remains very high.

"Food insecurity" is a euphemism that in plain English means having to go without food. New York Times reporter Jason DeParle wrote about one family whose members had to "skip meals, cut portions or otherwise forgo food at some point during the year" because they were simply broke. (11/16/09)

In its recent report, the Department of Agriculture said that in 506,000 households children faced "very low food security," up almost 200,000 over the previous year. President Obama called this finding "particularly troubling." Nearly 17 million children lived in homes where food was scarce at times, and more than one million of them were sometimes just plain hungry. This is a 45% increase from 12 million in 2007.

An analyst at the conservative American Heritage Foundation, Robert Rector, said of the 49 million reporting a lack of food: "Very few of these people are hungry. When they lose jobs, they constrain the kind of food they buy. That is regrettable, but it's a far cry from a hunger crisis."

But James Weill, director of the Food Resource and Action Center, said, "Many people are outright hungry, skipping meals. Others say they have enough to eat but only because they're going to food pantries or using food stamps. We describe it as 'households struggling with hunger.'" (New York Times, 11/17/09) Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "These numbers are a wake-up call for the country."

A food bank in San Antonio, Texas, found that more than 40% of their clients "report having to choose between paying for utilities or heating fuel and food; 29% had to choose between paying for rent or a mortgage and food; 35% report having to choose between paying for medical bills or food." (

Lynn Brantley, president and CEO of a food bank in Washington DC, described what she sees every day: "It's a woman with children trying to make ends meet. It's a senior citizen who is living on a very minimum income. It's people who are losing their homes or losing their jobs. And it's being compounded now with the economy over and over again. High fuel prices, high food costs...inflation has been hitting. And that's where people are in need most, where it gets hit the hardest."(, 11/17/09)

Economist Raj Patel, activist and author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System, said he found the U.S. hunger numbers appalling: "The reason that we have this huge increase in hunger in the United States, as around the world, isn't because there isn't enough food around. Actually, we produced a pretty reliable solid crop last year. ... The reason people go hungry is because of poverty." (, 11/18/09)


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What kinds of choices are hungry people having to make?

3. Why does Robert Rector of the American Heritage Foundation think that "very few" Americans are hungry?

4. What evidence does the reading provide to counter Rector's claim?

5. What seems to be the major reason for "food insecurity"?


Student Reading 2:

The need for jobs in the 1930s and now

"Congress should make a priority of expanding federal nutrition programs that are aimed at helping millions of struggling families feed their children," the New York Times editorialized in response to news that 49 million Americans last year did not have enough food in 2008. (11/18/09)

However, while getting food to people who cannot afford to buy it provides immediate relief, it does not get to the heart of the problem. "The reason people go hungry is because of poverty," said economist Raj Patel. And while people are poor for many reasons, mostly it's because they don't have a decent-paying job.

Putting people out of work

The Labor Department said in its latest report that in October 2009, 16 million Americans were out of work. More than seven million jobs have been lost in the past two years during the severe recession. The official unemployment rate is 10.2%. But that number does not include people who have only part-time work but want to work full-time. Nor does it include people who have given up looking for work, often after months of trying to find a job. If these people were included, then one out of every six American workers—17.5% of us—would be unemployed or underemployed. In some states the figure is over 20%.

Nearly 352,670 students in New York City live in poverty, according to the New York City Department of Education. This means that more than one in every four NYC students lives in poverty. (And in the U.S., the "poverty line" is set very low. Many people who are officially above the poverty line do not make enough to live comfortably.) Small-town Americans may be even worse off. "At least one in two children in 17 small counties in the United States is living in poverty, according to a U.S. Census survey," Reuters reported. "Ziebach County, South Dakota, an area with a population of 2,542, leads with a poverty rate for those under the age of 18 of 67.1 percent...For all ages the poverty rate is 54.4 percent." (, 11/18/09)

But statistical bad news does not usually help us feel what is happening to other people. A report like this one might:

"THE WOODLANDS, Tex.-Paul Bachmuth's 9-year-old daughter, Rebecca, began pulling out strands of her hair over the summer. His older child, Hannah, 12, has become noticeably angrier, more prone to throwing tantrums.

"Initially, Mr. Bachmuth, 45, did not think his children were terribly affected when he lost his job nearly a year ago. But now he cannot ignore the mounting evidence. 'I'm starting to think it's all my fault,' Mr. Bachmuth said." (Michael, Luo, "Job Woes Exacting a Toll on Family Life," New York Times, 11/11/09)

Putting people back to work

President Obama has announced that he will hold a "jobs summit" at the White House in December 2009 to consider ways of putting Americans back to work. Many people support a government jobs-creation program, since, as Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute wrote, "By itself, the private sector is unable to create jobs in the numbers that United States needs to obtain a robust, full economic recovery." (quoted by Bob Herbert, "A Recovery for Some," New York Times, 11/14/09)

In 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression in America, 24.9% were jobless. Franklin D. Roosevelt had promised a "new deal" for the American people when he won the Democratic nomination for president. Once inaugurated, he made job creation a government priority. Two results were the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The CCC offered training for unemployed men in conservation and natural resource development—everything from mosquito and flood control to forest protection and picnic ground development. The WPA focused on public works projects—construction of public buildings and roads, parks, bridges and schools but also arts and literacy projects. These two federal programs put millions back to work. By 1940 the jobless rate had fallen to 14.6%.

Today the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a Latino organization, are calling on President Obama for "increased spending for schools and roads, billions of dollars in fiscal relief to state and local governments to forestall more layoffs and a direct government jobs program, 'especially in distressed communities facing severe unemployment.'" The unemployment rate for blacks in 15.7 percent, for Hispanics 13.1 percent, and for whites 9.5 percent. (Steven Greenhouse, "NAACP Prods Obama on Job Losses," New York Times, 11/17/09)

Bob Herbert, an op-ed writer for the Times, is among those calling for similar programs. As he was reading about frequent closures of the decrepit San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, he wondered, "In 20 years will today's toddlers be traveling on bridges and roads that are in even worse shape than today's? Will they endure mammoth traffic jams that start earlier and end later? Will their water supplies be clean and safe? Will the promise of clean energy visionaries be realized, or will we still be fouling the environment with carbon filth to the benefit of traditional energy conglomerates and foreign regimes...?"

Infrastructure investments, Herbert wrote, have been crucial to stimulating the American economy "since the beginning of our republic...America's infrastructure, once the finest in the world, has been neglected for decades, and it shows." ("What the Future May Hold," New York Times, 11/17/09)

Another proposal involves "paying workers to work shorter hours..." wrote Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Under this proposal the government would give employers a "tax credit of up to $3,000 to shorten their workers' hours while leaving their pay unchanged... If workers are putting in fewer hours and demand is unchanged, then employers will need to hire more workers." (

The New Deal tradition and its opponents

Ideas like these are in the Roosevelt New Deal tradition, but Roosevelt and his supporters had to overcome vociferous opposition, and not only to programs like the CCC and the WPA. Two other programs that faced strong opposition still exist: (1) the Social Security Act (1935), which requires both employees and employers to contribute to a fund that provides income to the elderly and the disabled, and (2) the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1938), which supports prices for farm products.

Opposition came primarily from Republicans and their supporters. Social Security and farm subsidies required taxpayer money for a government program . In the opinion of opponents, such programs would be a disaster for the free enterprise system, and represent the introduction of socialism.

Today the same arguments are being made against a health reform bill that is slowly making its way through Congress. It will also be made against government job creation programs supported by organizations like the NAACP and by advocates like Ross Eisenbrey, Dean Baker, Bob Herbert, and perhaps by Barack Obama.


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why doesn't the official unemployment rate reveal the full extent of the joblessness problem?

3. How did President Roosevelt attack widespread unemployment during the Great Depression? Why was there opposition to his New Deal programs? What results did his programs have?

4. What similar proposals for job creation are being made now when so many Americans are out of work? What do you understand by opponent's arguments that government-run programs mean "socialism"? If you don't know, how might you find out?


For inquiry

Select one New Deal program for investigation. Among some possible questions: What was its purpose? What opposition was there to it and why? What results did the program have?

A broader inquiry might investigate the overall effect of Roosevelt's New Deal programs and the differing points of view about them among historians.

Inquire into the effects of the recession on your town or city. Use the local newspaper, radio and/or TV station, and town or city records as sources in researching such questions as: To what extent is there "food insecurity"? unemployment? home foreclosures? What efforts are officials making to help citizens?

Examine the results of President Obama's "job summit." What specific job creation programs result? What support and opposition result? Why?


For citizenship

In the high school section of TeachableMoment see "Teaching Social Responsibility" for suggestions on how to get students involved in educating people in their school or community about hunger and joblessness.



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: