Economist David Beckmann

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Activist-economist and author of Exodus from Hunger gives advice on what everyday Americans can do to address hunger and poverty.

Economist David Beckmann is one of the foremost U.S. advocates for hungry and poor people. He's president of Bread for the World, Bread for the World Institute and founder-president of the Alliance to End Hunger. Winner of the 2010 World Food Prize, he has degrees from Yale and the London School of Economics and previously worked at the World Bank. Beckmann is also a Lutheran pastor and has lived in Bangladesh and Ghana and overseen projects in Bolivia and Ecuador. In his book Exodus from Hunger, he puts a human face on this global problem.


Tavis: David Beckmann is the president of Bread for the World and co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network. His new book is called “Exodus from Hunger: We are Called to Change the Politics of Hunger.” He joins us tonight from Des Moines, Iowa. Mr. Beckmann, good to have you on the program, sir.
David Beckmann: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Let me start with asking what the politics of hunger are.
Tavis: Well, I think the binding constraint on progress against hunger is lack of political will. Many countries around the world have really made dramatic progress against poverty, hunger, disease over the last two, three decades, so we know that it’s possible to make progress against poverty in places as different as Bangladesh or Brazil or Great Britain. It’s also possible in the USA, and in my judgment what’s really needed is organized give a damn. We’ve got to have political commitment to reduce hunger. I think we know a lot of things that we can do to reduce hunger and poverty in our country and around the world, and what we need to do is change especially U.S. government policy, because our government provides a framework for what we do here in this country and also it has reach all over the world.
Tavis: What’s wrong with U.S. policy where hunger is concerned?
Beckmann: Well, we have – if you think back on it, in our country it’s been since Johnson or Nixon that we’ve had a president that would have made reducing hunger and poverty one of his top three priorities. So it’s not a surprise, I think, that we haven’t reduced hunger and poverty in the USA, and in fact with the recession a lot more people have been pushed into hunger and poverty.
It’s now one in four kids in our own country who lives in a household that runs out of food. Then I think we’re doing a better job than we were doing 10 years ago in terms of supporting people around the world, really poor people who are trying to work their way out of hunger and poverty, but there’s some clear things that we can do that wouldn’t cost much money, wouldn’t take much effort, and that would maybe help a couple hundred million people escape from the worst possible hunger.
So it really is up to us, I think, as citizens to weigh in, in the election on November 2nd, and then as advocates to push our elected officials and make them know that reducing hunger and poverty is important to us.
Tavis: I want to come back in a second to those things that you intimated a moment ago that we can do, simple things, in fact, to start to reduce hunger in this country and indeed around the world, but I’m struck by your going all the way back to Johnson and Nixon. There are a whole bunch of presidents between Johnson and Nixon, so let me ask you what you make of the ones since Johnson and Nixon; specifically, how you grade President Obama on this issue.
Tavis: Well, I think the Obama administration is a real opportunity, because he’s made some significant commitments to help hungry and poor people in our country and around the world. For example, he just issued a directive to all the agencies of the U.S. government that will help to make our foreign aid more effective in promoting growth and reducing hunger around the world. He’s got a world hunger initiative and is really mobilizing the whole world to invest more in poor farmers around the world. When it comes to our country he supports strong child nutrition programs, tax credits for the working poor. So the fact that he’s president gives us a chance, but then I think we need to get our members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, to support and shape the president’s agenda for poor and hungry people. The fact that he’s president is one reason why we’ve got to – I’m a preacher. I think God is calling us right now to change our politics of hunger, because we have suffered a real setback with the economy, lots more people hungry and poor in our country and all over the world. But at the same time we have really very practical opportunities now to pass a few laws that would help people in the midst of this economic crisis and then as the economy recovers we could see continued progress against poverty around the world and also some progress against hunger and poverty in our country.
Tavis: Let me ask a two-part question, which isn’t the best way to conduct a conversation, but I figure these answers are going to run together so I’ll put them both out at the same time. One, are the politics of hunger partisan, and as you answer that question whether they are or not, tell me what this legislation is that you’re referencing that we ought to be advancing to address this issue.
Tavis: Well, it makes a difference which party controls the House. After the November 2nd election it’ll make a real difference. But there is scope within both parties to do some good things for hungry and poor people. I think there are conservative approaches to reducing poverty, liberal approaches, and in fact both parties could do a heck of a lot better job in reducing poverty.
So it’s Bread for the World, my own organization, we work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to get the job done. As soon as Congress comes back after the elections, they’re going to be dealing with the child nutrition programs.
So they’re going to be deciding are we going to provide more nutritious school lunches for our kids or not? Are we going to strengthen programs like school breakfasts that get to low-income kids? Some people are proposing let’s strengthen those programs and do it by cutting food stamps, which makes no sense. That’s one clear opportunity.
Another thing is that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have really done a great job of responding to the dramatic increase in hunger around the world over the last couple of years by mobilizing the whole world, other governments, corporations, NGOs, to invest more in poor farmers in poor countries.
But the money that they need – it’s not much money, but the money that they need to lead that global initiative is hanging fire in Congress and Congress is not on track to give them the small amount of money that they’ve requested to help reduce hunger around the world.
Those are two things, and those of us who care about the hunger and the politics of hunger can just weigh in with our members of Congress. Bread for the World’s own website is You can find out there about those issues and then let your senators, your representative know that you care about hunger and specifically you want strong child nutrition programs, you want to support the U.S. government’s world hunger initiative.
Tavis: How do you –
Beckmann: Tavis, again, just sort of – no, I just want to put it from a religious perspective, a faith perspective. I’m struck that the world has really made extraordinary progress against hunger and poverty over the last couple decades. There are 30 million more kids in African schools today than 10 years ago. In Latin America the child mortality rate’s half what it was 20 years ago. This is extraordinary.
I see this as God moving in our history. That’s where the title “Exodus from Hunger” comes from, because this is a great exodus in our time, and I think by everything sacred, we ought to get with the program and make it happen. To do that we need to change U.S. politics on these issues that affect hungry people.
Tavis: You’ve spoken pretty directly and forthrightly to the American people watching this program tonight. What is it specifically that everyday people can do beyond the conversation we’ve had about legislation? What is it that people can do to affect this issue?
Beckmann: Well, right now we’re at a turning point with the election on November 2nd, so as you’re thinking about who to vote for, think about which of those candidates is going to be better news for hungry and poor people. It’s not the only issue, but I think it’s one issue – it’s one way that God’s looking at our election and we ought to look at our election that way.
If your own local election looks like it’s pretty much set, find a candidate someplace else who’s going to be good for poor people and is vulnerable, and get on his website and send him $50.
So influence the election on November 2nd and then go to, connect to some specific issues where you know tens of thousands of other people are also pushing, and help us get good child nutrition programs, good tax credits for the working poor, more development assistance, more effective development assistance for poor people overseas.
These are very doable things despite the deficit, despite all the dysfunctionality of U.S. politics. We can get Republicans and Democrats. If we push, we can get people from both parties to work together and in fact we’ll see a dramatic – I expect to see, before I die, I think we could get the number of hungry people in the world down from one billion to 100 million. I think that’s very possible, and in our country we should not have to have one in four kids living in a household running out of food.
In a country that’s as richly blessed as ours, we can end child hunger.
Tavis: The name of the book is “Exodus from Hunger: We are Called to Change the Politics of Hunger,” written by the winner of the 2010 World Food Prize, David Beckmann. Mr. Beckmann, thanks for your work and thanks for coming on the program.
Beckmann: Thank you a lot.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm