Silence Can Kill: A Conversation with Arthur Simon

By Ana O’Quin

One in nine people in the world, a total of 820 million, face extreme hunger. In the U.S., 40 million experience food insecurity, 13 million of whom are children. Many of these food insecure citizens also face poverty, a condition that affects one in every eight Americans.

Although the statistics are grim, Arthur Simon, founder and president emeritus of Bread for the World, believes that these numbers can be reduced in the next decade. In his new book, Silence Can Kill: Speaking Up to End Hunger and Make Our Economy Work For Everyone, Simon proposes that the U.N.’s goal to end extreme hunger and poverty by 2030 is possible. Simon argues that reducing hunger and poverty is not a question of resources and possibility, but one of willpower. He asks readers to end their political silence on hunger, a silence that in its complicity leads to suffering, and eventually death. 

Simon spoke with Ana O’Quin, a senior at Baylor University and a 2019 recipient of the Center for Public Justice’s Hatfield Prize. Ana researched food insecurity among teenagers in Waco, Texas, with her faculty advisor, Dr. Stephanie Boddie. Her report, “The Hidden Epidemic of Food Insecurity,” details the experience of food-insecure teens, explores the mental, physical, and spiritual impacts of food insecurity, and makes recommendations for government and civil society institutions serving this population. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

AO: The title of your book is Silence Can Kill. What do you mean by this? What are people most often silent about?

AS: The subtitle, “Speaking Up to End Hunger and Make the Economy Work for Everyone,” points to hunger and a seriously flawed economy as killers. We are silent about telling our national leaders, and those who aspire to lead, that it’s time to end hunger in this country and assert stronger leadership in helping to end it worldwide. By our silence we are complicit in diminishing and shortening lives on a very large scale.

Of the [seven] reasons why Christians, specifically, are reluctant to advocate in “the political arena” that you discuss in Chapter 14, which do you most identify with? How have you personally overcome that obstacle and not engaged in what you call “cheap” grace (taking the sacrifice of the crucifixion lightly)?

Maybe apathy is at the top of the list, because I still struggle with it. But let me combine a few reasons. We like to stay in our comfort zone. We are comfortable with charity, but advocacy is more complicated, political, and sometimes controversial. But in avoiding the political dimension of hunger we forget that silence is also a political act, just as it was in Hitler’s Germany. For our silence, as well as our apathy, we need God’s forgiving love. God helps us become what we have been created and redeemed to be in Jesus. God’s costly sacrifice, that saving grace, sets us free to move out of our comfort zone and take action.

In the book you outline our history as a nation in regards to combating hunger and poverty both domestically and abroad. What lessons can we learn from history as we work to address hunger and poverty?

Photo courtesy of Eerdmans.

Photo courtesy of Eerdmans.

The starting point to acknowledge is white supremacy, which we quickly asserted over native American Indians, African slaves, Latinos and others. Slavery and its ongoing aftermath was the most vicious. This became part of our culture and was embedded in our daily life, in social relationships, policies, practices and law. It still is, though if we are white we are seldom even aware that we are part of this oppression.  

A related feature of our history is a top-heavy emphasis on individualism that often translates into “every man for himself,” without much regard for the common good. Yes, we have a remarkable political system, but it has been utilized most by people of wealth who craft it to their advantage. So the rest of us have to step up and speak up for others.

You present the goal to eliminate extreme hunger and poverty by 2030 internationally as plausible. What is the United States’ specific role in working towards this? Of the recommendations you outline in your book, which should be of top priority when shaping national policy?

The United States is by far the biggest player in the global economy. Measured as a percentage of our national income, our development assistance to recipient countries lags way behind most other economically advanced nations. When we contribute more, others do also. When we hold back, so do others. Our overarching policy should be to work with other nations to promote peace and development in many ways, as proposed in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

The first section of your book shares how preemptive and bold steps to end hunger are more profitable for our nation than continuing to let hunger exist. Why are these steps that may be more costly upfront worthwhile in the long run when addressing hunger? 

Those steps are worthwhile because they invest in our most precious resource — people. The health and well-being of the nation depends on this. We pay in unemployment, low wages, family erosion, dysfunctional behavior, racial and social unrest, political division, health care costs, lost productivity, poor educational outcomes, courts, police, prisons, and much more. Of course, the short-term costs of reversing hunger and poverty are higher, because the long-term savings show up gradually, year after. We pay dearly now for decades of letting hunger and poverty fester.    

You differentiate between charity, compassionate acts for others, and justice, a way of expressing these differences on a large scale and challenging power structures. You compare this concept to attitudes around race, privilege, and inequality in our nation. Can you expound on this, and explain how the two concepts are related?

People of good will who want to help end hunger and help heal racial divisions (especially in the Church, it seems) prefer to do that in direct personal terms. So for hunger, that usually means charity. And racial equality may mean, say, for white people, being personally nice to people of color and thinking of them as equals. Because “I am not a racist,” we feel no need to confront our own white racial privilege of which we are scarcely aware. Both charity (for hunger) and personal acceptance (of racial differences) are commendable. However, neither response addresses the underlying structural injustice that is pervasive. And neither response recognizes the key role of government in causing and permitting the injustice, and therefore the importance of calling for public justice in helping to bring about a remedy.

How can the very people who face hunger and poverty become important players in the move towards a more just society?

Their participation as citizen advocates is greatly needed, but their circumstances usually make it difficult. They are often the most effective advocates, because they speak from their own struggles. But a single parent may be frantic trying to manage a home, a job, a family, school and health and child care needs, and feel too exhausted to give the kids the personal attention they need and crave. So carving out extra time to be a public advocate, attend an occasional meeting, keep informed and act in a timely way — that’s asking a lot. Still, decision-makers need to hear them and see them. Local food banks and pantries could help a lot here, and some of them do. 

As we enter into election season, what would you like to see the presidential candidates discuss in regards to economic mobility, hunger, and the social safety net? 

I’d like to hear them at least acknowledge the hunger and poverty crisis. It rarely gets mentioned. But the “Circle of Protection” religious coalition is soliciting videos on that from every presidential candidate. The Circle of Protection is a religious coalition of prominent people who are religious leaders. They are saying “Look, don’t take away the basic protections of the safety net. Let’s not try to balance the budget on the backs of people in poverty.” 

I’d like to hear them say ending hunger should be a national goal and is a non-partisan issue. I’d like them to also say that making it a national goal would help us deal with our underlying racial and economic inequalities. Ending hunger is not a goal that stands alone. It’s connected to an economy that caters mainly to privileged people.  

How, as citizens in an increasingly polarized political climate, can we work together to take steps to eliminate hunger and poverty? In your own words, how do we stop “arguing about how the fire started” but instead “agree to put it out”? (Simon 144)

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is an example. Conservatives tend to blame the behavior of poor people for their poverty, while liberals see unfair economic barriers. Rigid views on this block solutions, while sharing insights could pave the way for solutions. It is true that some people lack the "get up and go" that they need. But the overwhelming majority of people who are poor don’t want to be poor and they do want to work. They want to support themselves and their families. There is a tendency for each side to take a single-minded view of this. 

Sometimes things have to get so unbearably bad that continuing down the same path makes no sense. Then alternatives begin to take hold. Maybe we are at a tipping point at which the public says we should no longer tolerate hunger, just as the public in England and later in our northern states decided regarding slavery. Or it could begin to happen when a few key leaders from both parties decide to jointly push for a national goal to end hunger. Meanwhile there is work to do and prayers to offer for that opportune time to come.

I have read your book, and now feel compelled to take action. As a young adult who wants to do something, where do I start? 

Start talking about it. Talk about it in your family. Talk about it to your friends. That tends to then at least begin to get people thinking and shifting the culture. The second thing — become more informed. Read stuff, join an advocacy group that is advocating for these issues. But you have to do some of that yourself. Don’t just pay attention to social media; look into news outlets like NPR or PBS or a regular news network. 

In general, people are not well-informed about the role of government in a lot of things. It does connect in this way to  poverty and hunger. If you really care about hungry people, you have to take your citizenship seriously. 

Arthur Simon is founder and president emeritus of Bread for the World, a national citizens’ voice urging our nation’s decision-makers to help end hunger at home and abroad. He has written a number of books, including The Politics of World Hunger, which he coauthored with his brother, Paul Simon, the late US senator from Illinois.

Ana O’Quin is a senior social work major with a poverty and social justice minor at Baylor University. O’Quin loves being invested in the Waco community through mentoring in Young Life, volunteering with an anti-trafficking organization, and working at a local coffee shop. She grew up overseas in Indonesia and loves to jump on a plane and travel at every chance that she gets. O’Quin was a 2019 recipient of the Center for Public Justice’s Hatfield Prize and authored the policy report “The Hidden Epidemic of Teen Food Insecurity.”


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