Politics of Poverty

Fighting hunger in India and the US: Who comes out ahead?

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While developing countries struggle to overcome poverty and hunger, US politicians want to punish poor people.

Birjha Bai (right), collects a ration of subsidized wheat (10kg) and rice (25kg) from the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Gor Kamh. She and her husband work as manual laborers and their income can be irregular. The family has relied on PDS grain for the past 20 years. Photo: Tom Pietrasik / Oxfam.

Last Thursday was a bit surreal for me. I hosted a small lunch session to discuss India’s new, historic Food Security Law that has been enacted this month. The potential it holds for helping 800 million poor Indians achieve food security excites me. Building on existing programs, it’s probably the biggest and most ambitious food security measure in human history. It’s a big deal.

But by days end, the biggest news was that the US House of Representatives had passed a bill to deny as many as 4 million poor Americans food assistance.

It was a whipsaw.

In Oxfam’s conference room, we had Mr. Govind Mohan, Economic Minister at the Embassy of India, to provide a cogent overview of the years-long political and policy work that delivered the India Food Security Law. The ruling government promised legislative action to enshrine the “right to food” at the start of its term, commissioned research and study of the issue for several years to develop legislation, and delivered a final law this month.

Meanwhile on the floor of the US House of Representatives, food security legislation was under debate that had never been subject to public hearings, was not published in advance, and was mysterious even to supporters.

The differences are striking:

Hunger in India

Hunger in the US

India has approximately 400 million people who face absolute ($1.25/day poverty), and is home to about one-quarter of the people facing hunger globally. More than 40% of Indian children experience malnutrition. These are awful facts. Yet, India is taking steps to change; small in comparison to rich-country budgets, but big for a developing country. In the US, more than 45 million people face some kind of food insecurity and qualify for food assistance. It’s not a lot by US standards, about $4 a day. But, politicians in Washington are looking for ways to cut them off.
The new law in India seeks to provide affordable food to 800 million Indians. The bill in the House of Representatives will likely deny food assistance to 4 million Americans.
India is willing to commit approximately $20 billion annually to provide this food assistance, about 2% of national GDP. The House of Representatives is trying to cut approximately $4 billion annually from a $75 billion food assistance program, which is about half of one-percent of US GDP.
A separate law in India, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act enacted in 2005, guarantees the poorest people 100 days of employment to provide for basic income. The bill in the House of Representatives would impose new work requirements on poor people to qualify for food assistance. It does not offer any help in meeting these requirement, much less guaranteeing employment.
The India Food Security Law was unopposed by any major political party. The political class in India is united by the goal to end hunger. The House Bill was passed with an exclusively Republican majority. Only 15 Members of Congress crossed party lines for the vote. In the US, hunger has become a partisan issue.


It was a strange day – feeling encouraged by the historic effort being made by India and then feeling ashamed by the nasty, inhumane discourse that spews out of Washington, well, like food poisoning.

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