Punishing the hungry to shrink the deficit

It's wrong for Congress to punish hungry people when it won't even reduce the deficit

March 31, 2011|By Ritu Sharma

This week, I started a liquid fast. I'm fasting to get Congress to stop using deficit reduction as a tool for the indefensible slashing of budgets that provide basic support to the poor and the hungry, at home and abroad. I am fasting because hunger and poverty are, at bottom, women's issues. Women and girls make up a little over half of the world's population, but they account for over 60 percent of the world's hungry.

The hunger fast I joined was launched this week by former Ohio Congressman and Ambassador Tony Hall, who fasted for 22 days in 1993 when he was chair of the Congressional Select Committee on Hunger to draw attention to the needs of the hungry in the U.S. and abroad. This time, many leaders of Christian, Muslim and Jewish organizations have joined Congressman Hall's fast because they all agree that the proposed federal budget cuts have crossed an indefensible moral line. As a secular anti-poverty women's organization, Women Thrive also agrees with their view that the stakes this time are much higher than they were 18 years ago.

In the race to avoid a government shutdown, the proposed congressional spending cuts would unfairly affect those who've played no part in getting our country into the financial mess it is in. Domestically, these include the WIC program, school lunch subsidies, preschool for low-income kids — all those budget items that are easy to cut because they do not have enough lobbyists to defend them in Washington.

But particularly egregious are cuts to our global assistance programs, a convenient political target any time there is a need to slash spending. Poverty-focused international assistance is less than 1 percent of the federal budget (though Americans routinely say they think it is about a third of the budget). Axing it does virtually nothing to fix our deficit. Cutting it by almost half, which is now on the table, would be particularly devastating for women. Doing that now, when world food prices are at all-time highs and there are more hungry people worldwide than ever before, is morally and fiscally wrong.

Women grow most of the developing world's food on small farms and sustain their families on very little, usually eating last, if at all. I have tried each year for the past three years to live overseas on a dollar a day to experience a little of what the world's poorest women struggle with. In a village in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, it meant spending hours making the one meal of the day: harvesting the grain and vegetables grown on my tiny plot, fetching water, collecting leaves, grinding, pounding and cooking. In rural Guatemala, it meant living on tortillas and beans and little else. A dollar in both these places buys barely enough in the market to feed one person, let alone a family. And if you need medicine, or your children need shoes or books for school, you eat even less.

Cuts to international assistance programs affect these women — and their children — in tangible and long-lasting ways. It does not serve our nation to deny nearly 60,000 HIV-positive pregnant women treatments to prevent their babies from contracting AIDS, to strip funding from 10 million malaria-fighting bed-nets which would be distributed this year, or to take away programs that give farmers the tools to ensure better food security for their families. And there's evidence that poverty and hunger are at the root of much instability and conflict worldwide. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said, development assistance is much cheaper than sending soldiers.

I'm often asked why America should not cut global assistance programs when we have so much financial stress at home. This is a false choice, both because they cost so little in the first place, and because we're also eliminating similar programs at home while barely tinkering with the really big-ticket drivers of cost in our nation's budget. As an advocate for the world's poorest citizens for almost 20 years, I have never felt as concerned about our country's commitment to the poor and the vulnerable as I do today.

We have a responsibility to leave our children with a healthy, balanced federal budget and to ensure that spending is effective and efficient. But all cuts are not made equal. Some cuts kill, others do not. It's time for Congress to recognize that and not take away more from those who have the least.

Ritu Sharma, a resident of Crownsville, is co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide (www.womenthrive.org), which advocates for U.S. policies that benefit the poorest women and girls worldwide. For more on the Hunger Fast, campaign visit http://www.hungerfast.org.

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