The economic arrangements that produce the $295 hamburger also produce the abundance that ensures practically no one in the United States is starving to death for purely economic reasons. Hunger, like genuine homelessness — sleeping-on-the-street homelessness, not living-in-cramped-quarters-with-people-I-would-rather-not-live-with “homelessness” — is in the United States a phenomenon that has little to do with economic exchange (much less insufficient production) but is instead mainly the product of addiction, mental illness, and — worse — the terrible condition of being a child dependent upon someone who is an addict, mentally ill, or indifferent.
The average occupancy of Los Angeles County homeless shelters is less than 80 percent. They are not forced to turn people away because they lack resources — instead, one in five beds go empty. Millions of Americans eligible for food assistance never apply for it. Many food banks are underutilized, not overstretched. The regulars sleeping on the streets in Manhattan or in the subway stations — and if you live or work there, you know who they are, because it is the same handful of people day after day — are not there because no material is available to them. They are there because their direst needs are not strictly speaking material in nature.
As Rich Lowry and others have argued in these pages, what really ails urban America is a massive failure of the mental-health system, not a lack of shelter beds, tuna sandwiches, or truncheons.