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Chronically hungry children of America

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — While it is normal to expect high levels of hunger and poverty in a developing country, it may come as a surprise to observe such conditions in one of the richest countries in the world. The Food Bank for New York City recently reported that nearly 20 percent of children in the city rely on free food to survive. According to statistics from Bread for the World, 13 million children went to bed hungry in the United States in 2004.

Hunger is one of the clearest expressions of poverty. A child is born into poverty every 17 minutes in New York City. Chronically hungry children suffer from malnutrition, which can have devastating effects on physical and mental development. Malnutrition results not only from undernourishment but also from the wrong kind of foods, particularly fried and fatty meals.

It is estimated that 30,000 children in the world die every day from diseases related to hunger. The infant mortality rate (IMR) in Washington is more than twice as high as Beijing’s. In 2002, the number of babies who died before their first birthday was 11.5 per thousand births in Washington versus 4.6 in Beijing.

In the U.S., hunger and race are linked; 41.9 percent of African American children and 40 percent of Latino children are chronically hungry, compared to 16.2 percent of white children. The United Nations Development Program reports that an African-American baby in Washington has less chance of surviving its first year than a baby born in urban areas of the Indian state of Kerala. America’s IMR ranks 43rd in the world.

According to recent information from the Food Bank for New York City and City Harvest, published in “Growing Up Hungry in New York City: An Analysis of Hunger Among Children,” hunger among children has reached critical levels in the city. Their research shows that almost one-third (29 percent) of New Yorkers who receive emergency food aid are children.

Recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that more than one in four New York City children and adolescents below 18 lives below the federal poverty level. This figure is 50 percent higher than the national average. What makes this particularly worrisome is that between 2000 and 2005, the number of children living in poverty in New York City has increased by 5 percent.

UNICEF has indicated that although the U.S. is still the wealthiest country in the world, with incomes higher than in any other country, it has also one of the highest rates of child poverty rates among the industrialized nations. Denmark and Finland, by comparison, report child-poverty levels of less than 3 percent, followed by Norway and Sweden. All those countries have high levels of social spending.

Several factors contribute to poverty and hunger among children and their families in the U.S. Among them are poor education, discriminatory practices against minorities and women, limited job opportunities, unstable family life, mental illness and substance abuse. Perhaps among the most important factors in the U.S. are unemployment and gender-earning disparities.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has stated: “A person may have little means of commanding food if he or she has no job, no other sources of income, no social security. The resulting hunger can coexist with a plentiful supply of food in the economy and the markets.”

These conditions apply to the U.S., where the gaps are growing between the rich and poor, who remain permanently marginalized and forgotten.

The total elimination of poverty and its consequences is probably not attainable. It is possible, though, to reduce the number of poor people by acting on all factors that contribute to poverty.

No matter how rich a country is, if it doesn’t fill the needs of its children, it is, in fact, a poor country.