Not enough food: The case for a Just, Urgent and Sustainable Transition continues

Today, we have a guest blogger in the guise of Professor Scott Baum from Griffith University who has been one of my regular research colleagues over a long period of time. He indicated that he would like to contribute occasionally and that provides some diversity of voice although the focus remains on advancing our understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its applications. It also helps me a bit and at present I have several major writing deadlines approaching as well as a full diary of presentations, meetings etc. Travel is also opening up a bit which means I can now honour several speaking commitments that have been on hold while we were in lockdown. Anyway, over to Scott …

Not enough food: The case for a Just, Urgent and Sustainable Transition continues

As 2020 came to a close, and we enter a new year, the case for a Just, Urgent and Sustainable Transition continues to gain pace. Each day there seems to be media commentary pointing to the social divisions that are becoming entrenched in society. If the existing level of accumulated social wreckage wasn’t enough, 2020 saw an exponential increase. The evidence is not hard to find. A recent story published by the UK Guardian (December 17, 2020) – Unicef to feed hungry children in UK for first time in 70-year history – we learned that for the first time in 70 years, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have had to provide food for children in the United Kingdom. That suggests that something drastic has gone wrong in one of the most advanced nations of the world.

The details of UNICEF’s involvement include supplying:

18,000 nutritious breakfasts to 25 schools over the two-week Christmas holidays and February half-term, feeding vulnerable children and families in Southwark, south London, who have been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

From a – range of statistics – we see that Southwark is a disadvantaged Borough in south London, where around 40% of children live in low-income households and 19 per cent live in households with no employed parent.

Almost half the population are from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, unemployment is above the average for London and the population face a raft of accumulated social issues including high rates of crime, childhood obesity and high rates of preventable mortality.

So we see that food poverty is another component of the ever growing social malaise experienced by proportions of our populations.

But the 25 schools in Southwark are only the tip of the iceberg.

In the same Guardian story, we read

A YouGov poll in May commissioned by the charity Food Foundation found 2.4 million children (17%) were living in food insecure households. By October, an extra 900,000 children had been registered for free school meals.

For context, the Op Ed article by Regina Keith (June 17, 2020) – Marcus Rashford: a brief history of free school meals in the UK – reveals that free school meals in the UK have had a long history and used to be provided by local authorities before being privatised by the Thatcher government.

That shift resulted in a poorly organised program with cheap rather than nutritious meals, less children eligible etc.

The usual F on the neo-liberal report card!

On hearing the news, the Twitter-sphere went crazy with UK opposition politicians taking pot-shots at the conservatives as though they are the only ones to blame.

UK Labour MP – Angela Raynor – tweeted:

It should never have come to this. We are one of the richest countries in the world.
@BorisJohnson and @RishiSunak should be ashamed.

While another Labour MP – Richard Burgon – obviously going for more cheap political points (surprise surprise) wrote:

Britain is one of the world’s richest nations. Unicef, for the first time ever, is now delivering emergency food to children here.
Poverty is a political choice. The Gov’t could end UK child poverty by making the super-rich pay fair taxes. It refuses to.

Correct sentiment. Incorrect understanding.

The author of this tweet is correct about poverty being a political choice, but wrong about the solution (let alone the fact that as a MP they are part of this political choice).

Regular MMT-ers will know that statements about ‘making super-rich pay fair taxes’ has nothing to do with addressing the problem, unless we are taxing them to reduce wasteful behaviour that results in larger scale food wastage, which is another story altogether.

A similar story to the UK experience is, of course, playing out elsewhere.

The situation in the US is documented in the – Week 20 Household Pulse SurveyNovember 25-December 7 – published by the US Census Bureau.

The data shows that prior to March 13, 2020, around 11.5 per cent (11.2 million) of the households surveyed who had children said they either sometimes or often did not have enough to eat.

For the latest survey covering the period November 25 to December 7, the percentage of households with children who said they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat shot up to 14.2 million or 14.7 percent.

Here in Australia, we witness a similar picture.

The Australian charity Food Relief notes in their – 2020 Food Bank Hunger Report – that:

In 2019, the main groups accessing food relief were families living on a low income, the unemployed, single-parent families, the homeless and people with a mental illness. Since March this year, some of these groups have become even more vulnerable needing to access food relief more often. But charities are also seeing groups of Australians who need to access food relief for the first time. Almost three in ten (28%) Australians experiencing food insecurity in 2020 had never experienced not having enough food before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

The report goes on to point out that households are forced to make trade-offs between putting food on the table and paying other expenses:

Cost of living has consistently been the main reason Australians experience food insecurity, with people most likely to cite unexpected expenses or large bills (41%) and rent and mortgage payments (35%) as the most common reasons they are unable to afford enough food. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these challenges as people’s lives have become more volatile and unpredictable.

They then point out that the measures the government introduced as part of its COVID-19 income support packages did provide some relief, but they also noted:

… charities and food insecure Australians alike have an extreme sense of unease about the future as these measures are rolled back. More than one in three (35%) receiving assistance don’t know how they will cope or expect they will not cope well at all. Four in five Australians receiving the Job Seeker payment (80%) expect a $300 cut to the payment would mean they would definitely have to both skip meals and reduce how much fresh fruit and vegetables they buy

I don’t think there would be too many people who would disagree that everyone should have the right to access decent food.

In contemporary society, the fact that many people go without meals is a testament to policy failure.

That children should have to do without meals is doubly bad.

The literature on food insecurity and food poverty, surveyed in this article – Food insecurity and hunger: A review of the effects on children’s health and behaviour – published in the Paediatrics Child Health journal (March 2015) is clear.

When children don’t get enough to eat, they suffer from reduced learning and productivity, poor mental health, an increased risk of developing chronic diseases and an increased risk of becoming obese.

These negative outcomes then follow many for life and so the cycle of poverty continues.

Returning to the Twitter comment above, the author was 100 percent correct about the political nature of the problem.

Like so many of our accumulated social wreckage, children not having enough to eat is a political choice.

It is a political choice to have individuals and families living in poverty.

It is a political choice to resign individuals to unemployment and precarious employment.

All these things are linked and could be rectified if there was enough political will for governments to end poverty.

Governments of all persuasions are good at paying lip-service to ending poverty.

In 1987, the late Bob Hawke, while Australian Prime minister announced that:

By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty

Apparently, in making the announcement, he mis-read the script and should have said no child need to live in poverty (Source).

While this would have been a great achievement, it was always going to be unattainable as successive governments, including the two Labor governments subsequently (one of which was Hawke’s) became increasingly shackled by the neo-liberal project.

Poverty became increasingly the fault of the individual and governments began making distinctions between the deserving and the underserving poor, while actually giving only limited support in the way of ever deficient levels of income support.

Regular readers of this blog will know too well the arguments around the government’s ability to end poverty.

They include:

1. The best way to eradicate poverty is to create jobs (November 21, 2011) – which includes recommendations for large-scale public job creation.

2. Australia’s minimum wage rises – but not sufficient to end working poverty (June 6, 2017) – which addresses the ridiculously low minimum wage in Australia.

3. Reducing income inequality (August 8, 2016) – which includes an analysis of why governments should ensure that wages growth reflects productivity gains, which helps raise living standards.

4. Welcome to the ‘homeless’ working poor – a new neoliberal KPI (February 22, 2018) – which includes a recommendation to increase the supply of social housing, given the massive shortfall that has developed over the last 3 or more decades as governments have cut back on public investment.

These types of arguments firmly set within the context of a MMT lens should inform all debates around ending poverty and should lead the way to the kind of Just, Urgent and Sustainable Transition that we all need and deserve.


In closing, I am hoping that while the politicians were sitting around the dining table enjoying their festive lunch recently that they had found what they really needed under the Xmas tree – a new ideological and conceptual lens and a copy of Mitchell, Wray and Watts’ – Macroeconomics – or Mitchell and Fazi’s – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World – for their holiday reading lists.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2021 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. One can’t be told what pain is. The only way to acquire this knowledge is through personal experience. As much can be said about taste (as in taste of an apple), poverty, humiliation, sexual intercourse, parenthood, inequality, racial discrimination… If you are not a black person in USA you can’t really relate to the problems of this demographic. To many people hunger may feel like an easier concept to grasp and appreciate. Indeed, quite a few have tried dieting, perhaps even elimination of the food entirely for a few days. It didn’t feel too bad. In fact, it frequently feels good. You are loosing weight, staying more focused, alert… Not even close. True hunger consumes you. Eventually food becomes an obsession. You dream of it. That’s all you can think about. Any organic chewable matter qualifies. Simply having something in the mouth.

    Frequently society puts a person in charge of a task he or she doesn’t have first hand experience with. Hunger would be a good example. A politician making a decision to allocate funds to school lunches or food aid likely has never been hungry. Likewise, senators, representatives, lords… debating fiscal intervention don’t really appreciate the importance of it to the target audience. How can they? They are an elite. Top tier of society. It is ironic that we assign these tasks to people with least experience in the matters.

  2. Dear Lavrik. I can’t agree with you. Plenty of people have an inate, and/or through knowledge acquisition, capacity for empathy. That includes the most privileged (Buddha being an example) though it is evidently true that elites whose experience is more cut-off and privileged, are more likely to be anti-social and put in place ideology and systems to support privelage and place individuals at fault for their low standing and deprived situation. ‘We assign these tasks to people with least experience’ – unfortunately what democracy we have in many nations is continually restricted by the power and ideology of elites who granted democracy in the face of revolution, and restrict access to education and knowledge to ensure democracy doesn’t impact their privelage. Let me assure you, I wouldn’t assign Johnson and his Cabinet (UK example) to clean the streets, though I would swap a mess in the streets for less dependence on food banks and thousands prematurely dead.

  3. Not are we sickeningly depriving our kids of at least one square a day from pure spite and ignorance, but we are now depriving them education from pure spite and ignorance. This time the deprivation is being cheered on by the ‘progressives’ who want it sooner and longer.

  4. Certainly I agree with the gist of Dr. Baum’s informative and sensitive post, but I think the following statements (and others like them) are more apt to confuse than to clarify the situation he addresses. “In contemporary society, the fact that many people go without meals is a testament to policy failure…. All these things are linked and could be rectified if there was enough political will for governments to end poverty.” I submit that if we are to speak as clearly, cogently, and forcefully about such abominations, as they cry out to be spoken of, the proper language is not “policy failure” but moral failure, not “political will” but human decency.

  5. Don’t really agree with moral failure or policy failure or human decency arguments.

    What we see before us is capitalism’s principle outcome and its defining feature.

    In all Western democracies, we see the same ills just as we saw in the early 20th century and even before. This is a feature of profit-driven society and any form of class society in general.

    We really need to stop thinking we can really solve problems or have human rights when capital is still in charge. We are doing ourselves disservice. How can we solve any problem when our solution clashes with capital in terms of authority and profits? How can we solve any problem when we are dominated by the wage system? I don’t think we can.

    I do not agree with education necessarily being counter to elites’ ideology. I work at a university in California USA and people here are quite conservative and still buy into democracy shell game. Marx said that middle class is inconsistent and he is dead on correct. Not only middle class are inconsistent themselves, but their middle class ideology of servitude to capitalism seeps into people who are supposed to be proletarians and infect them as well.

    I agree with Lavrik on not experiencing what it is like to be poor, but Patrick is right also. However, it doesn’t matter because elites are in charge and they dictate to poor people whatever they want.

    That is the key we must hold tightly to. Other considerations are secondary and should supplement the primary.

  6. Please correct me if I’m wrong, Tom Y., but I thought that Marx’s deconstruction of capitalism, with which I largely agree, flowed from and intended to further both morality and human decency; i.e., from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Without such meta-economic values, as Bill calls them, upon what basis would one be critical of capitalism, especially if favorably situated within it? Efficiency, perhaps? Not much of a rallying cry IMHO to inspire or foment a revolution.

  7. It would seem the dynamics of the prisoner’s dilemma game eventually catch up with us. All large scale social and political structures struggle to overcome the fundamental conflict between the personal ‘needs’ and ‘requirements’ and the collective ones. This is why capitalism fails in collective goals. It over-emphasizes individualism and self-reliance while treating cooperation not unlike a necessary alliance between the enemies. Well, admittedly, socialism has done even worse… One can’t just will cooperation into existence. It works somewhat naturally in small communities (our distant past), where everyone knows each other and failure to cooperate is promptly detected and punished. Cooperation, if unattended, fails miserably at the large scale, where visibility and control are difficult and there are many opportunities to cheat. I am aware that Bill is an advocate of humans as social animals. I respectfully agree with a caveat. The caveat is the scale. It works for a family, a village… even a small city perhaps. It likely breaks for a large city, certainly for a country. This is why one can’t expect people in modern society to look after each other ‘naturally’. Mental and physical distances are too great. There must be a system in place to ‘correct’ (and keep correcting) our weaknesses throughout our entire lives.

  8. Dear newton Finn,

    We don’t disagree on the morality issue. Perhaps I was unclear. I am in full agreement with what you have. What I was trying to point out is that those things do not matter in capitalism because they go against authority and profit of capital and that’s the reality we are seeing. Should they matter? Yes. But under capitalism they do not.

    Key has always been for those without poverty to take power. That’s the essence of marxism. Only then can policy be humane because it would serve the people and not be sidelined by capital whose lifeblood comes from exploitation of all sorts.

    You can’t implement mmt job guarantee without political power.

  9. Lavrik,

    You are doing a disservice to poor people when you talk down socialism. For poor people, socialism & guarantee to basic needs is the only way out. The current system cannot be reformed because it is the system dominated by the rich and their middle class helpers.

    The whole cooperation argument is silly. Capitalist production is entirely cooperative. No serious socialist would claim capitalism has not led to massive technological advance and rise in absolute standard of living.

    We should not be stepping one step forward then two steps back when we know the step forward is out of capitalism. Humans are infinitely creative. Those problems you pointed out should be recognized, discussed and challenged (if they even turn out to be real problems) as yourself acknowledge .

    Talking down socialism (which is merely an extension of meaningful democracy to the majority) is certainly a wrong thing to do if one has the welfare of the poor in mind.

  10. Tom Y.

    I am only skeptical of approaches to build socialism that people have tried so far. I would also argue that socialism as described by Marx is not implementable. It makes assumptions about human beings and their behavioral patterns that simply are not observed in practice. Durable system must include some elements of both capitalism and socialism. Potential for profit and personal investment in the task are powerful motives. In this regard capitalism is correct. You can’t replace them (at least not everywhere) by moral or ideological arguments. It, of course, fails when it comes to common goods, equality, welfare… In a properly designed society people must gain personally, tangibly and immediately or shortly thereafter from collectively useful activities. In other words, there must be a well defined mechanism to motivate people to work on and solve collectively useful problems at a large scale. The last part is important and missing from existing models.

  11. The road to socialism invariably consist in transitional forms (like China today). You can stay in transitional form for longer if we are not ready but we are going that road.

    “Potential for profit and personal investment in the task are powerful motives. In this regard capitalism is correct. ”
    Yes, so powerful that any human decency is disregarded.

    “In a properly designed society people must gain personally, tangibly and immediately or shortly thereafter from collectively useful activities”

    What do you think socialism even is? Socialism does not mean you can do whatever crappy or obsolete job and still get the same amount of pay. No serious socialist ever claim to reward anyone for doing nothing. In socialism, you get more pay if you do a good job at whatever you are doing.

    Anyway, what you are doing right now is shooting yourself before taking the first step.

    You can do whatever you want ultimately, but I suggest we drop philosophizing and walk the walk. Problem with academics (and people who use brain too much) is that they talk too much most of the time and dust themselves walk off without doing anything useful for the poor. We can engage in that but i personally am sick of it. I debate these talkers in our union, and they never participate/organize and all they do with their talk is to discourage people and confuse them.

    Talk all we want, we are not in power. That is the key.

  12. @’Patrick B’ I hate to burst your rosy Buddhist tinted bubble, but empathy does not cut it. @Lavrik is dead right. Empathy does help, but you truly cannot understand poverty and hunger without experiencing it. Sendhil Mullainathan has done some good work on the behavioural economics of scarcity (which in my opinion does not go anywhere near far enough in addressing causes and solutions). Experiencing dire scarcity changes your brain, you become really good at budgeting and estimating prices, and really cognitively deficient in long term planning, you constantly make mistakes by doing short term spending that long term hurts you (the “poverty trap”), and every day is a hellish nightmare of wondering if you will live to the next. Empathy alone cannot give you such an experience, nor can it help you understand the true nature of such suffering.

    For what it’s worth, by all trustworthy accounts, Buddha was one of those rare, almost unique, individuals in history who had uncanny empathy for the poor. We’ve gone hundreds of years at a time without seeing such people arise. You want to look at some of the piss poor politics of figures like Mother Theresa to see that empathy does not cut it. On the other hand, folks like MLK did experience poverty and the worst sort of discrimination and violence, so they are different to the Budhha, they have had their brain re-wired.

  13. Is it too late to make edits or corrections? Early in the article, the writer refers to cheap rather than notorious foods. Surely he means nutritious?

  14. Dear Herb Wiseman (at 2021/01/28 at 4:09 am)

    Thanks for your comment. The problem is now fixed.

    Much appreciated.

    Best wishes

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