We don't have to travel to places like Appalachia or the South Bronx - or any central city, for that matter - to see the faces of hunger in America. As we at Zogby Analytics have learned after three decades of tracking this issue, Americans who regularly do not eat for 24 hours at a time because of a lack of money or food are right next door, or down the street, sitting next to us at a PTO meeting, or even in our own family. They are people who look just like us, may have all the trappings of a middle class lifestyle, and are not necessarily standing in line to sign up for unemployment benefits or food stamps - because most likely they are not eligible.
Those who experience hunger on a regular basis may not even - as we will see - be poor. They may be victims of a temporary setback, or frankly a catastrophe they thought would only be short lived. But they face difficult choices at times - literally whether to eat or pay the bills, or at least let the kids eat.
I have done hunger surveys since 1987. My first study and report, which I did with my wife Kathy of our home base - Oneida County, NY - sought to discover the real impact of a contracting economy on real people. I did the quantitative work; Kathy went and interviewed people who stood in line at food pantries, soup kitchens, and at the homes of those who responded to our surveys that they or someone in their household regularly went "without food for 24 hours at a time because of a lack of money or food." We found people at all income levels. The recently divorced mom who got the house but no financial support. The downsized executive who had been making $150,000 a year, but could only scrape together with his spouse a total of $75,000 a year. "What do I do with the house, the cars, my reputation?", one respondent told Kathy. "If I give these up I will lose everything I have worked for, dreamed about - and even worse, everyone will know." That was a very tough predicament faced by more people than we thought.
Since we began tracking that very same hunger question in our surveys, the percentages of those have responded that they miss meals on those terms has averaged about 4%-4.5% -- and never veered. I have aggregated our 2014 national surveys to a total sample of 11,979 American adults. The results are startling. (Plus I need to note that this is an online survey, thus the numbers revealed are more conservative than the reality because we are missing people too poor to have online access at home).
Overall, now, a total of 9% told us that they "have gone without food for 24 hours at a time because of a lack of money or food in the past month." (The identical question we have asked since that hunger survey in 1987). And the demographics are sad.
- The West has the highest occurrence of people going hungry (13%), no doubt in part caused by the highest concentration of Hispanics, 20% who say they fall into this category.
- Thirteen percent of 18-29 year olds and 12% of 30-49 year olds experience hunger, as do people in every income level - including 14% of those earning less than $25,000 in 2013 and 11% of those in the $100,000-$150,000 income group.
- Residents of large cities (15%) reported going hungry, as did 10% of people living in union households, 14% of the Creative Class, 17% of NASCAR fans, 13% of the Investor Class, 15% of those living with children under 17, 29% of current NRA members, 14% of Weekly Wal-Mart Shoppers, 14% of Tea Party supporters, 20% of Occupy Wall Street supporters, and 16% of those who identified as Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender.
Hunger is not concentrated in one section of town nor is anyone automatically immune. When we say that wages have stagnated and that people who shop for food know more about inflation than official government statistics, this Zogby Poll reveals one of the realities that Americans are facing. Some of you reading this will challenge the findings. You can stand next to Kathy and me the next time we do in-depth interviews and find out exactly what our neighbors - people just like us - are going through.