Counting the human cost of recession

Counting the human cost of recession

Related tags Food

Return to profitability. It’s a phrase that businesses have been yearning for, but as more of them are starting to use it, it’s time to ask: At what cost?

In a straight-talking world, a return to profitability often means slashing jobs and adding to the pool of skilled individuals who can’t afford to feed themselves and their families. This has become the stark reality for millions of human beings, despite many companies’ efforts to dress up deep job cuts with euphemistic language – think ‘streamlining’, ‘right-sizing’, ‘restructuring’ or even ‘taking efficiency measures’.

But while the beginnings of economic recovery have generated some longed-for optimism in the business world, signs of recovery on a basic, human level are harder to find.

This was exemplified last week by shocking figures released by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA): The number of Americans signing up for the Food Stamp Program – now officially called the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – is growing at a rate of 20,000 people a day. The program gives those on low incomes a monthly average of $101 per person, or $227 per household, to spend on food, and more than 36.5 million people now take part. That’s up by more than 10 million in just two years.

And only around two-thirds of those who are eligible for the program actually take advantage of it.

Meanwhile, the USDA has also revealed the highest level of American food insecurity ever recorded, with 17 million households, or 14.6 percent, struggling to put food on the table at times last year.

Unsurprisingly the rise in US Food Stamp Program participation closely tracks unemployment figures. It is hoped that as the economy recovers, employers will start hiring again – but it is expected that they will remain cautious for some time yet, perhaps years.

Of course, this is a global recession, and it has global implications.

While the developing world has long been susceptible to poverty and food shortages, this is even more the case as wealthier countries struggle to feed their own citizens. Widespread food insecurity has come west.

In Europe, higher food prices led the European Commission to boost the budget for its member-state food distribution program by two-thirds, to €500m ($740m) this year. It estimates that 43m Europeans are currently at risk of food insecurity. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization says food insecurity exists “when people do not have adequate physical, social or economic access to food”.

These food security problems in regions of plenty are a distressing reminder that the real pain of recession goes far deeper than bail-out packages and hefty national debts.

Whispers of economic recovery may be growing in volume, but as Americans queue at food banks around the country and sign up for help with paying their grocery bills in increasing numbers, focusing on economic growth is disconnected from ordinary lives.

Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef. If you would like to comment on this article, contact caroline.scott-thomas ‘at’

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