In catching up on economic news this week, I’ve noticed a trend toward real world reports. It’s as though a few in the media have awakened to the fact that a large segment of our population is struggling to just get by — which for regular folks isn’t exactly news, but it’s a welcome change from the usual indifference. There was a piece on the farm bill, featured on the Bill Moyers’ Journal website, that I want to emphasize:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the monthly grocery costs for a typical low-income family shot up 7.2 percent in 2007 – a three-fold increase over the previous year. But, the average family’s allotment of food stamp benefits grew by less than five percent. We also know that most people can only stretch their food stamp benefit to the third week each month.

Last year, the number of households participating in the food stamp program increased 5.6 percent. This year, with our economy in deep trouble, it’s going to get worse. The latest report says that probably 28 million Americans will receive food stamps by the the end of 2008, a million and a half more than 2006.

That’s an enormous shift in circumstances for a lot of families in a short period of time. And it’s led to a recent spate of studies and reports thereon regarding cutbacks and the Depression-era tactics being employed as American families slip from "rampant consumer" mode to "survival as best we can" mode. This latest from Reuters on the increasing use of shopping lists to keep grocery costs in line is but one of many I’ve seen crop up.

And, if public sentiment, Congressional calls to action on consumer credit issues or even the Fed is any indication, we’ll be seeing a lot more. One of the factors driving all of this is the reduction in workforce hours, which has led to economic shrinkage across the board. Via NYTimes:

Throughout the country, businesses grappling with declining fortunes are cutting hours for those on their payrolls. Self-employed people are suffering a drop in demand for their services, like music lessons, catering and management consulting. Growing numbers of people are settling for part-time work out of a failure to secure a full-time position.

The gradual erosion of the paycheck has become a stealth force driving the American economic downturn. Most of the attention has focused on the loss of jobs and the risk of layoffs. But the less-noticeable shrinking of hours and pay for millions of workers around the country appears to be a bigger contributor to the decline, which has already spread from housing and finance to other important areas of the economy.

While official unemployment has risen only modestly, to 5.1 percent, the reduction of wages and working hours for those still employed has become a primary cause of distress, pushing many more Americans into a downward spiral, economists say.

It doesn’t help that unemployment numbers are also up sharply from expectations. And it isn’t just the US, it’s worldwide. With food shortages increasing all over the globe, and economic instability rising in some of the most volatile regions, civil unrest, war, hunger and famine are rising issues for all of us.

The folks at The One campaign aren’t waiting for the crisis to deepen before asking for action:

The shocking headlines have had our attention all week. The price of basic food staples have increased 45% in just the last nine months – and they’ve doubled in the last three years….

This weekend, World Bank President Zoellick said that this hunger crisis could “push 100 million people in low-income countries deeper into poverty” and that the effects would be equivalent of “seven lost years in the fight against worldwide poverty.”

The shortage is fueling social unrest in some of the most fragile nations around the globe. Haiti, Egypt, Niger, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mozambique, Bolivia and Uzbekistan discontent has already erupted. “For countries where food comprises from half to three-quarters of consumption, there is no margin for survival.”(Zoellick)

You can sign their petition requesting action to help those countries where the need is most dire.

Stirling has a fascinating piece on industrial revolutions and raw materials that is well worth a read. The folks at Brave New Films are taking on some of the greedier aspects of our economy, the modern day robber barons. (Also, here and here for more.) Robert Johnson provided us with a glimpse after his presentation at TBA, and Ian has been sounding the economic alarms for quite some time.

See our future through our past…and realize how little things have changed, despite the desperate need for them to do so.

(YouTube is an information piece from the Charlotte Meals on Wheels program. What’s your niche to help folks in need? Imagine if we all pulled together to lift each other up for a change…)