Crises of New Proportions
While food pantries and other emergency service providers moved quickly to help those in immediate need, many of the resources did not reach the working poor or Americans newly struggling due to lost jobs and business closures. As domestic spending for entitlement programs took a backseat to increased military spending, millions of Americans faced food insecurity in an atmosphere of increased xenophobia, racism, and stigma against recipients of social safety net programs.
On September 11, 2001, four coordinated attacks carried out by the terrorist organization al-Qaeda resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths and many more injuries in New York City, Arlington, VA, and Pennsylvania. Private charities quickly raised hundreds of millions of dollars to aid survivors and the families of victims.
Three cataclysmic weather events gripped the nation in the 2000’s. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina inflicted unprecedented damage on Louisiana and Mississippi, hitting working class Black neighborhoods hardest. Superstorm Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in 2012, flooding communities not built to sustain climate change-driven hurricane damage. And Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico so significantly in 2017 that rebuilding efforts are still ongoing today.
Americans awoke to the reality that decades of dismantling the safety net had resulted in poor preparation, dismal crisis management, and even worse federal relief and response. Just when Americans needed to rely on their government the most, they often did not receive support.
Millions of Americans lost jobs and homes in the 2008 financial collapse known as the Great Recession. While big banks received financial bailouts, individuals scrambled for new, often low-wage jobs in a depressed market. Many Americans saw and experienced the inequalities in a system that favored corporate interests over the public good. In response to widespread economic hardship, Congress significantly boosted benefits for food stamps (renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in 2008). This helped prevent a more serious spike in hunger and momentarily demonstrated the efficacy of an adequately-funded social safety net. The boost was prematurely rolled back in 2013, despite continued high unemployment and food insecurity.
President Barack Obama, the first African American president in U.S. history, took office in January 2009. At the same time, the “Tea Party” emerged as a backlash to his election, deploying rhetoric that programs like SNAP catered to “freeloading” people unworthy of support. Their rhetoric, buoyed by the rapid spread of information and misinformation on social media, heightened political polarization with lasting implications.
In late 2018, the U.S. government was embroiled in partisan gridlock and failed to pass a budget. Negotiations stalled and government funding lapsed, resulting in the federal government being shut down for 35 days — the longest such shutdown ever. This precipitated a cataclysm of food insecurity, visibly exposing how many furloughed government employees, and others impacted by the shutdown, were just one missed paycheck away from a household crisis.
The shutdown also impacted Americans already receiving federal assistance from programs like SNAP (formerly food stamps) when lags and delays in benefits created additional hardship for food insecure families. Though there was contingency funding for SNAP, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) that served households in Indian Country was left unfunded.
When COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March 2020, the vulnerability of many Americans’ lives were thrown into stark relief. Widespread business closures created mass unemployment, and food insecurity skyrocketed. Like COVID-related death rates, COVID-related food insecurity rose more sharply among communities of color and among populations typically overlooked and underserved, such as single mothers, LGBTQ seniors, and Indigenous communities.
Early responses to COVID-19 offered struggling Americans temporary emergency support in the form of stimulus payments as Congress passed vital — yet short term — improvements to federal nutrition programs. When President Joe Biden took office in 2021, he centered the government’s responsibility to take care of those in need with key policies that were part of his “American Rescue Plan.” While many of these programs brought a measure of stability to American households throughout the pandemic, their temporary nature meant critical programs were due to sunset with the end of the public health emergency, even as families continued to struggle.
By the end of the 1990s, Americans from all sides of the political spectrum embraced policies that prioritized personal over communal responsibility, often blaming the most vulnerable for the struggles they faced. But the new millennium brought with it an era of crises, each chipping away at the presumptions underlying the prevailing wisdom of prior decades — that individuals were responsible for their own circumstances and, therefore, responsible to remedy them.
These crises — from natural disasters, to external attacks, to a global pandemic — revealed not only how vulnerable most Americans were to financial insecurity, but also laid bare the structural inequalities that had weakened government programs so significantly that they could no longer adequately respond to the public’s needs. It became clear that policymakers must provide the lasting, structural changes needed to ensure that all people could feed themselves and their families.
During this era, a series of crises had devastating impacts on food insecurity and revealed gaping holes in the United States’ social safety net. In response, many Americans demanded that the government must not only respond in times of crisis but that those in power enact lasting policy reforms to repair the broken systems that allow hunger to persist.
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Crises of New Proportions
Galleries & Exhibits
- 11865-1925: Hunger in the Industrial City
- 21929-1940: America in Crisis and Recovery
- 31945-1965: WWII and the Paradoxes of the Postwar Era
- 41955-1980: The Fight for the Right to Food
- 51975-1996: The Unmaking of the Great Society
- 61997-Present: How It Is — And How It Should Be