Thursday, August 6, 2009

The New Meaning of Hunger

In discussions of the U.S. economy, the meaning of “hunger” has changed.

A century ago, when people talked about “hunger,” the concern was for people who regularly went for days without any food, and could die of starvation. By the middle of the twentieth century, “hunger” would include anyone who could suffer significant health consequences because of eating a small amount of food.

Now it appears that the “hunger” problem includes everyone who runs out of money and needs food assistance. A CNN Money story today about hunger in Detroit describes the embarrassment of “middle-class” people as they ask for food assistance. So far, there is still food, although things could get worse when the harvest season ends. And this is in the hardest-hit city in the United States right now.

It is a big change from the 1970s, when food pantries regularly ran out of food even in relatively prosperous cities such as Baltimore and Tampa.

The change in the economic significance of clothing has been greater than that of food. In 1970 it was commonplace to see clothing with patches on it, and people who were especially hard-hit might extend the life of a pair of shoes by patching the soles with cardboard. In 2009, the clothing people are wearing looks the same as the clothing people were wearing in 2007. Most of it, of course, is the same clothing, and none the worse for wear, or at least you can’t see the difference. More people are buying clothing at thrift shops, but not so many that inventories are being depleted.

Clothing has become so durable we don’t even think of clothing as an immediate problem when money gets tight. Food, though, we need every day, and for the most part, we are finding it. “Lean times” used to be times when most people would lose weight. That is not what is happening now. Instead, even as “hunger” is widespread, the average American has gained weight since last year.