The Winter of our Discontent

As more and more Americans fall into poverty, our safety net is becoming weaker

In the highest number since 1959, approximately 43.6 million Americans lived in poverty in 2009. Devastatingly, this included “almost one in four American children under the age of six.” A record number of Americans now depend on food stamps for their meals, as hunger creeps into over 50 million households.

This holiday season will be one of the toughest in memory for America’s least fortunate. Unemployment has barely budged in months, while many of the federal and state programs that constitute America’s weak safety net are set to expire or run out of funds. America’s rapidly expanding poor population will need substantial assistance from the government and private individuals to make it through the winter.

Government policy is far and away the most powerful tool to alleviate this devastating spread of poverty. Increased food-stamp funding from the stimulus bill has been a critical lifeline for the poor to gain access to food, and extended unemployment benefits have been the only source of funds for the non-senior jobless. This unemployment insurance is in danger of expiring on Nov. 30 for many long-term jobless, leaving them without funds and resources during the harsh winter.

There is a strong macroeconomic incentive to continue and expand these programs. Programs including food stamps and unemployment insurance have some of the highest gross domestic product multipliers because the poor will almost certainly spend all of their funds. A dollar spent to provide food stamps creates $1.74 in economic activity, while $1 on unemployment benefits will create $1.61 in economic activity.

Funds in the stimulus that employed workers, such as the Employment Contingency Fund—which paid private companies to keep employees in their jobs—and state and local aid—which funded many public sector jobs—also prevented poverty while placing incomes in hands where it would be spent. When our economy is struggling to move in the right direction, it is confounding that Congress is not continuing many of our most effective macroeconomic policies. Republican filibusters to any additional aid to the poor or stimulus show a fundamental lack of concern with the health of the economy or the plight of the poor.

Helping the poor makes a great deal of economic sense, but, even more importantly, it is a moral imperative. No child deserves to go without meals or warm clothing in the dark days of January; no single mother should have to choose between spending on one child over the other. A society should and must be judged by how it treats its least fortunate, and that’s why, regardless of Congress’s actions, private citizens do what we can to ensure that every American has a meal to eat and the resources to get through the winter this holiday season. It is important to continue to lobby Congress on behalf of the poor because the government can act at a much greater scale than can charities. That said, there are various causes that Americans can support independently with their time and resources.

Feeding America is a network of America’s food banks that provides food to one in eight Americans. It covers almost every county in the nation and is a vital resource for America’s neediest. A donation as small as $1 can provide three meals, and the need for this food is as great as it’s ever been. With a small contribution, you might end up providing breakfast for a child before he goes to school or Christmas dinner for a family in need.

At, you can provide a small donation to a classroom in need and allow a project or curriculum that was in doubt to come to fruition. Students might learn a special curriculum about democracy or read a new book because of your small gift. A classroom in a poverty-laden town in Texas needs funds for audiobooks for hearing-impaired students, and a classroom in California needs a carpet so that the kids can sit down, read aloud, and build community.

There are countless other organizations that help support America’s poor during tough times, including many here at Harvard and in the Boston area. Time is a very valuable resource to donate as well, and nonprofits and charities always need extra volunteers during the holiday season. The circumstances demand that we each find some way to support America’s poorest over the next few months and encourage those closest to us to do the same.

These are dark days for America’s poor, and the government seems unlikely to extend and solidify the weak safety net and support system that it has provided for the poor, despite the clear economic and moral imperatives in favor of doing so. Thus, it is essential that Americans privately step in to fill the gap. Through donations and volunteering, we can help ensure that, despite the highest levels of poverty in decades, every American can find a little stability and comfort this holiday season.

Ravi N. Mulani ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.


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