The Opportunity Movement

Devoted to closing the Opportunity Divide

Monthly Archives: May 2011

Food For Thought

Last week, Year Up held a wonderful event at the home of Pam and Alan Trefler…not a fundraiser, more of a consciousness-raiser. The topic of discussion: How does food inequality relate to the Opportunity Divide?

First of all, what do we mean by “food inequality”? At a basic level, go to any inner city and try to buy a fresh vegetable. It’s tough to do. Or, price a gallon of milk at the local convenience store – it’s much more expensive than at Costco (which is a drive away and requires a car to access). Or, just ponder the fact that one out of every four children in America is currently on food stamps. It’s shocking.

How might this type of inequality relate to the opportunities to which one has access? The answer has to do with systems, and how they relate to and impact one another. By “systems” we mean housing, food, legal access, education, healthcare, and criminal justice; the systems we exist in as citizens, but often do not choose. We are placed in certain systems primarily because of our zip codes and socioeconomic status.

Here is a flow of logic to consider: if I am often hungry but do not eat nutritious food on a regular basis, it will be harder for me to focus and study at school. It is also likely that over time my health will be negatively impacted by this, which – if I don’t have access to regular medical care – may mean I miss school more frequently. The combination of these factors may cause my grades and education to suffer. Therefore, I may not do well on high-stakes tests (for instance, the SATs) which often dictate the expectations people have for me after high school. That is, if I even manage to graduate.

The food system, the educational system, and the healthcare system are all inter-related. At times, they can create a vicious vortex that even the persistent may find daunting to overcome. It is the very interdependence of these systems, especially in areas of concentrated poverty, which makes them so pernicious.

I don’t think we solved any problems last week as we pondered these questions, but the topic was very good “food for thought.”

Something to Sink Your Teeth Into

I have believed for some time now that rising income inequality poses a long-term threat to our civil society and indeed our democracy.

This is not the most popular view to espouse at dinner parties and can be seen by some as unpatriotic and scaremongering; it doesn’t get a laugh or leave people with inspired visions of a utopian society. From our often inward-looking national perspective, it can be hard to see how the 2005 riots in France or the recent protests in North Africa and the Middle East could ever become reality here in the USA. All were in large part catalyzed by sky-high youth unemployment and a lack of opportunity to climb the economic and social ladder. As Timothy Noah illustrates in his well-written 10 part series, income inequality is only problematic when you combine it with a lack of social mobility.

While I would never sell our country short, it is hard to deny that trends in America are heading in the wrong direction. As Noah explains, income inequality has risen steadily over the last 40 years to the point where “income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador.”

Similarly, the Brookings Institution / Pew Economic Mobility Project, “Is the American Dream Alive and Well?“, concluded that “children born into a low-income household in the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and Germany have a better chance of improving their economic situation than those born in the United States.”

Trends often catch us by surprise; it is hard to predict when there will be a backlash, a dot com bubble burst, or a housing crash. But the fact remains that current trends are heading in the wrong direction if one takes history as any useful guide to the future. How we reverse these trends – and who is responsible for reversing them – is a longer discussion. For now, it is worth noting that we are not so far removed from the international news reports we have been watching. If we continue on our current course, we too may reach a breaking point; it may not fall within the timeframe of any one administration, and is likely to be something our children will have to address rather than us. Sorry to be the harbinger of bad news, and I hope the food still tastes OK.

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