French philosopher Simone Weil’s decision to stop eating during World War II to express her solidarity with the people of occupied France cost her her life.
Sasha Abramsky is still living, but his passion for food, commitment to social justice, and experiment with a reduced budget have resulted in Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It.
Breadline USA is the fourth book this decade for the prolific Abramsky, who also writes regularly for Mother Jones and The Nation, among other publications, and one to which he brings a profoundly moral sensibility.
Abramsky makes it clear from the outset that the hunger he is describing is neither the same as one sees in famine-wracked regions of the world as in 1980s Ethiopia, nor are conditions quite as desperate as they were in Depression-era America. At the same time, he does show convincingly that the problem is national in scope and encompasses parts of the country that previously had not been affected.
At one point in the book, for example, Abramsky notes that hunger is Mississippi was first brought to public awareness by senatorial visits by Bobby Kennedy and an expose by Edward Murrow in the late 60s. Abramsky does so not to denigrate that state’s residents’ long-term suffering, but rather to bring out the problem’s recently expanded scope in other states.
Abramsky offers plenty of data to buttress his assertions and devotes a certain amount of space to discussing the culprits behind the recent spike in “food insecurity”-a bureaucratic doublespeak that he appears to take some relish in dismantling. Reagan-era policies that reversed much of the social compact forged initially during the New Deal and renewed during Johnson’s tenure as president and the second Bush administration’s actions play a prominent part in this section.
Well done as these are, though, these sections add comparatively little to our understanding of the current economic crisis.
Rather, much of Breadline USA’s value lies in its exposing the impact of the downturn on groups like the working poor, people living in states with little public transportation and long distances to travel to work, and seniors living on fixed income. Abramsky writes compassionately about these people who were already struggling to get by before the economy tanked, but who now live with a dull ache in their stomachs, deep anxiety about the future, wrenching choices between whether to pay for rent or groceries or whether to feed themselves or their children or and, at times, shame about asking for help.
To his credit, Abramsky moves beyond reporting and puts himself into the mix.
After a particularly tasty and expensive Mother’s Day meal in Sacramento, puts himself on a budget similar to that earned by a McDonald’s employee. A large part of Breadline USA is dedicated to Abramsky’s explaining his budgetary choices, his available food options, and his experiences under his self-imposed regimen.
Some may critique Abramsky’s actions on the same grounds as Ehrenreich encountered after the publication of her book: that putting oneself in a situation from which one knows one can leave at any moment is not even close to living in the conditions one is trying to understand. Others may go further and say that such actions are self-induldgent, or even, presumptuous.
While I understand this line of reasoning, I disagree.
To begin, Abramsky enters into his experiment with full acknowledgment that he is attempting to gain a glimpse of comprehension of what others experience, rather than asserting that from his actions he now has a full understanding of American hunger based on lived experience. Beyond the humility with which he conducts himself and writes, Abramsky raises the larger question of whether the attributes one receives are destiny.
My vote would be that they are not.
Abramsky’s rendering of life under his budget complements the heavy doses of reportage that put many human faces to this problem and connects directly to another of the book’s strengths: his love of food.
The book’s prologue contains vivid descriptions of the heaping portions of lovingly prepared dishes Abramsky received from his grandmother during his childhood in 70s and 80s London. He talks about the “insane” pleasure of eating-a pleasure that he takes great joy in seeing his son Leo also experience. Abramsky fleshes out these sensual descriptions of food with a reflection about what food can represent: connection, respect, nurture and love.
This sensual and personal dimension to Breadline USA gives the work emotional resonance beyond what a simple recitation of fact, comparison with other countries and previous periods in American history, explanation of causes and pointing toward solutions would have accomplished. Instead, Abramsky weaves this combination of reportage, personal experience and analysis in generally pithy chapters framed by epigraphs from authors ranging from Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Weil.
At times, the transitions feel seamless, while at other points the reader is more aware of the switch back and forth between topics. It was not clear to me whether this somewhat jarring sensation was an attempt by Abramsky to evoke a feeling similar to hunger’s disorienting impact or whether it was simply the product of producing a book under a very tight deadline.
This concern aside, Breadline USA does a better job exposing the “hidden scandal” than of proposing solutions to solve the problem. Abramsky concludes an early chapter about rising fuel costs by advocating a fuel subsidy and spends some time in the conclusion by talking about the need for President Obama to forge a social compact similar to that created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This section includes a list of fundamental changes that are needed in everything from our systems of worker pay, health insurance and pensions, among others. As with the analysis of how the nation arrived at the current moment, this part of the book proposes few truly innovative ideas.
Still, the failure to solve a problem one surfaces should not be a reason to ignore its exposure. Abramsky deserves praise both for the book’s substance and the creative ways in which he approached a previously little-explored consequence of governmental policies and the economic downturn. I look forward to reading his earlier works and await his next one, a psychological profile of Obama, with anticipation.