Hunger in the US and Europe – the fuel for social unrest

Illustration of starvation in northern Sweden

Starvation in Sweden

The contradiction between between the have and the have-nots is becoming increasingly salient worldwide. The UN commitment to end poverty and the millennium goals have been in place for the last eleven years and with only four years to go it does not seem to be going in the right direction.

While we normally associate poverty and hunger with countries outside the western world we have a growing number of people who experience starvation. At the same time we se a similar increase in people who are obese and suffer from malnutrition.

The worldwide nearly doubled between 1980 and 2008. According to country estimates for 2008, over 50% of both men and women in the WHO European Region were overweight, and roughly 23% of women and 20% of men were obese.

The Estimated number of overweight infants and children in the WHO European Region rose steadily from 1990 to 2008. Over 60% of children who are overweight before puberty will be overweight in early adulthood.

While the numbers for starving people in Europe is hard come by there are a growing concern that real starvation will occur on a growing scale especially in relation to the weak economies in the euro and the countries that stand outside the EU.

If one looks at the capacity of a country to cope with these kind of stains one can just look at the US were. There has been a similar trend over the past 20 years, have been a dramatic increase in obesity. In 2010, not a single state had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%. Thirty-six states had a prevalence of 25% or more; 12 of these states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia) had a prevalence of 30% or more.

In contrast to these numbers there were in 2010, 85.5 percent of U.S. households that were food secure throughout the entire year meaning that they had a steady supply of food. The remaining 14.5 percent were food insecure at least some time during that year. This meant that around 45 million US citizens did not have a steady inflow of food over the year.

In 2010, 5.4 percent of households experienced food insecurity in the more severe range, described as very low food security.

There is no doubt that there are real issues to be handled but it does not seem like it is a matter of supply as we have seen elsewhere in the world. Rather it is a problem of distribution and nutrition, which from a societal point of view is much worse as it threatens the ability of a community to keep its structural integrity. As we see uprisings in London, Madrid, Athens and the central issue is the uneven distribution of resources and while the central theme seems to be around monetary funds it would seem that the availability of food might be the next big thing to fight over.

The 99% of Denmark

You would be blind if you had not noticed the spreading of the “anti-capitalist” movement in the US also know as the 99% or Occupy Wall Street. And while the do have big issues there is no place were the fall from being the world leading economic superpower and the mall of the world to real tangible poverty have been greater then in here. In Denmark we have seen the first Facebook groups being formed and some of the first attempts to form demonstrations by ordinary people.

So how does the 99% compare between the US and Denmark and does the Danes really have anything to complain about?

Business insider has featured a number of interesting statistics about the situation in the US and I have tried through the Danish statistical office to replicate some of the same charts just in a local Danish context.

For one thing is the unemployment rate around 9% or around 14 million people in the US while it in is 4,2% or around 110 thousand people. While the numbers have been increasing from around 2% in 2008 and more people have lost their jobs the impact is still manageable. And we have yet to see real poverty on a large scale and fall in living standard among the middleclass. Also is the time from the loss of job to the time when people get another place of employment not as long as we have seen it elsewhere.

Another interesting thing is that corporate executives pay continue to rise both in the US and in Denmark. As one of the leading Danish corporate Asger Aamund said, “The Danes better get used to higher corporate payrolls” in spite the fact that the economy is a recession or as close to one as it can possible get. And as unemployment continue to grow and more and more people have to live for less it is no wonder people start o get upset.

One of the most discussed political and economical subjects discussed in Denmark is the growing inequality or the gap between the relative poor and the relative rich. According to the CIA (yes, it is the CIA you are thinking of) is Denmark number 17 on the list on the US is number 93!  Located in between Bulgaria and Camaroon. According to the survey are the most unequal country being Nambia and the most equal country being Sweden. One might argue that equality is not a goal in it self but it is shown that the level of inequality and social stability is to a large extend co-constructive. This means that countries where the economic differences are small will have a larger degree of political stability.

In both the US and Denmark was the pre crisis proportion of rich people around 2% and the poor 30% so when the number of poor gets higher it is no wonder that people start to make noise when they are asked to pay the bill. While we are far from some of the countries in the developing world we the propositions are not shifting in a more equal direction.

Do the Danes have a cause for alarm and a reason to take to the streets is a question, which is difficult to answer. But there is little doubt that the people who are asked to pay the bill after the relative rich have taken their share are the people with the lowest income. And as people with high incomes again and again are exposed as fraudsters, inside traders, pyramid builders, or just plain greedy the reasons for ordinary people to take to the streets just increase.