Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hunger Is Not The Problem

Hunger is not the problem

I know I'm going to get into trouble saying this, and will probably be misunderstood by a lot of people, but hunger is not the problem. At least not in our country. And maybe not in the world. Maybe.

Don't get me wrong. I fully support all our hunger ministries. Food banks and food pantries, soup kitchens, meals served to the needy. I give, urge my church to give, and get up early to go to a parking lot in a poor section of town once a month to give a hot breakfast to about 200 people. (And the number is growing.)

But hunger is not the problem. At least, not in most cases.

Hunger is a symptom, not the problem. Just like sore throat, high fever, and aching muscles are symptoms of the flu, they are not the problem. The flu is. And hunger is a symptom of a greater problem.

Think of it this way. If hunger were the real problem, and we gave people food, enough to last a month or two, and they never showed up again, we would have solved the problem. But people show up, over and over again. We feed the hungry people. They are satisfied, at least for a while. But then show up again needing food.

The problem may be economic. People may not have jobs, or the ones they have do not pay enough to help them maintain a "minimally adequate" lifestyle (to use a phrase loved in South Carolina). Or it could be economic in that people are not taught how to manage their money, so that they may have enough money but not be planning well. Economic development and education are the answers to these problems. Both are sorely needed in South Carolina, and I would guess in most of our country. I rode through a "ghost town" near Florence recently. Buildings are boarded up, the streets are terrible, and there are only a few stores and no industry. There are lots of people still living in the area, folks who cannot afford to move, but also can't afford to stay and eat. They are trapped. Many of them are hungry. Food will help for a day. Economic development will help for generations.

People have often stopped by my office looking for help with food. I have sat with many and talked about their income and expenditures. An overwhelming number have become trapped in title-loan prison, always going from one place to another, putting off the inevitable payment of outrageous interest. They have mortgaged their future on credit cards, and rarely ask the question "Can I afford this?" but ask the question "What are the payments?" These are good people, children of God, who have not been taught how to deal with their money. Budgets, they think, are for someone who has more money than they do. We usually give them food, because it is easier than trying to help them learn to budget and live within their means, or increase their means. "Here's a box of food. God bless you. We'll see you again in a few months." Education is hard. It takes time. But it changes the future.

There are a few situations where people are overfed and undernourished. This, too, is an educational issue. The April 9, 2013 issue of The State Newspaper (Columbia) had an article "Eating Healthy on a Food Stamp Budget." A nutritionist walked through a local grocery store, and was able to buy healthy food for a family of four for $118. Maximum weekly benefit for a family of four is $135. Of course, you have to cook, and that takes time and planning, and for some hungry families, that is hard. But that is where being a part of local church that cares for each other, as well as for those outside of the church, can help. What would it be like if this problem were addressed by members of a local church, helping those in need. Of course, it's still easier, if we just give someone a box of food.

And I hate to mention this one, because this is the only thing some people will focus on. But it must be dealt with. There are some people who will not work; whose job is to go from one place to another finding someone else to take care of their symptoms. Paying utility and rent bills, food and clothing, gas and transportation issues. Once again hunger is not the issue. It is the symptom. Responsibility, or lack thereof, is the problem. And while some people have been pressed down so hard that they have given up, the answer comes in helping them to take responsibility. Even standing with them until they can stand on their own. And for those who absolutely refuse to take responsibility, they must face the consequences of their actions. Children and the elderly, who are usually part of these families, too, need to be protected. But people find self-worth when they are able to take responsibility for their life.

Jesus talks about the kingdom in Matthew 25 and says "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat." Yet, in John 6 when he feeds the five thousand, the next day when they coming looking for him and another free meal, he does not feed them. Instead he talks about feeding on him, the "bread of life." The response- most of the people leave. I wonder if a modern day translation of Matthew 25 would read, "I was hungry, and you helped to develop work for me so that I could eat, feed my family, and live decently."

All this is not to say that there are not people who are in need. And it is definitely not to say that we should stop feeding the hungry. There are times when people need help getting through a rough time. Medical emergencies occur, job loss happens, other unexpected events cause us to need help. 

But until we address the real problems, until we ask "why do we have hungry people" and follow it up with "what can we do about that and when will we do it," we will never stop hunger. Not now. Not ever.

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