Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Hunger and Justice

Jim Skillen


April 10, 2009

Statistics on American hunger alone may shock you. Those receiving food stamps now number more than 32 million—one out of every 10 Americans. The public bill for this was almost $38 billion last year. And nongovernment aid agencies are assisting even more people.

We can be thankful, to be sure, that unlike the conditions during the Great Depression, food stamps and extended unemployment benefits are now available. But in a wealthy country like ours, the numbers are remarkable nonetheless.

Then there is really serious hunger beyond our borders, where the number of chronically hungry people in the world has risen to more than a billion (Financial Times, 4/7/09; A recent world agricultural report warned that food production is not adequate for the future, especially given volatile prices and the likelihood of droughts. “The crisis is expanding outside Africa as the [global] recession compounds the impact of high prices. Countries which have had little problem with food for almost 20 years, such as Kyrgyzstan, are now asking for help,” the FT’s Javier Blas reports.

Here at home, last year’s increase in the number of food stamp recipients by 4.6 million people is a consequence of job losses and home foreclosures, which are fueling the growing resentment and anger over multi-million dollar bonuses for some of the executives who helped create the financial crisis.

Prof. Dominique Moisi discerns a “deep feeling of injustice” in America today (Financial Times, 4/3/09). Analyst Krishna Guha says the feeling of injustice is fed by the government’s “double standard” in dealing with the banks and the auto industry. The financial language is technical but the point is clear: in the auto sector “the Obama administration is demanding debt-for-equity swaps that will impose large losses on bondholders. But in the banking industry, the administration is not asking for debt-for-equity swaps” (Financial Times, 4/7/09). Washington is doing far more to nurse along failed banks than it is GM and Chrysler. There are economic arguments on both sides of this perceived double standard, but the widespread feeling of injustice is contributing to the growing distrust of government itself.

Moisi sees a parallel here with the social unrest leading up to the French Revolution. “The problem with the economic team of the new president is that, like the court of the king of France in pre-revolutionary times, it has inherited all the bad reflexes of the ancien regime, mixing excessive sympathy for the outdated logic of the world of finance, which it helped to create, with insensitivity to the emotions of the ordinary people, which it tends to ignore. This sympathy is perceived to contrast with the harsh treatment of carmakers.”

Economist Ken Rogoff is one of those who argue that the Obama administration should treat the banks the way it is treating GM and Chrysler. Requiring long-term debt-for-equity swaps “would fix the financial sector’s problems and shore up public faith in the fairness of the market-based financial system” without adding to the already heavy burden on taxpayers (Guha, FT, 4/7/09).

If you listen to most news commentators, their attention is focused on job losses, lack of credit, efforts to save the banks, stimulus plans, and ways to cope “until the economy comes back.” Yet among the people, the sense of injustice lies deeper than the economic pain and embarrassment about taking food stamps. Deeper than physical hunger is the hunger for justice. President Obama still enjoys strong approval, though trust in government is declining. That approval won’t last indefinitely. Time is running out for the president and his team to satisfy the hunger for economic justice.

— James W. Skillen, President
     Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”