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Hungry in America
Ronald Reagan eliminated the food assistance that ensured most people had enough to eat in favor of a ‘safety net’ that aids only those in dire need. Now Congress wants to slash even that meager help.

I have no heart for somebody who starves his folks.

— George W. Bush discussing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and US food donations on CNN (January 2, 2003)

ELLEN SPEARMAN LIVES in a trailer at the edge of Morrill, Nebraska, a tiny, dusty town near the Wyoming state line. A few years ago she was a member of the working poor, earning $9.10 an hour at a local energy company. Then she got sick and had four surgeries for what turned out to be a benign facial tumor. New owners took over the company and told her she was a medical liability and could not work full-time with benefits. For a while she worked part-time without benefits, until the company eliminated her position. So the 49-year-old single mother of five, with two teenage boys still at home, now lives on $21,300 a year from Social Security disability insurance, child support, and payments from the long-term-disability policy she got as a benefit when she was first hired by the energy company. That’s about $6000 above the federal poverty level, and too high to qualify for food stamps. But it is not enough to feed her family.

Food is the expendable item in a poor person’s budget. With the need to pay for gasoline, car insurance, trailer rent, clothes, medicine, and utilities, and to make payments on a car loan and $10,000 in medical bills, Spearman says three meals a day "take a back seat." She says she and her family eat a lot of rice with biscuits and gravy. Their diet is more interesting only when a local supermarket sells eight pieces of chicken for $3.99 or chuck roast for $1.49 a pound. "This country doesn’t want to admit there’s poverty," she says. "We can feed the world, but not our own."

Spearman’s predicament mirrors that of many Americans. While the most severe forms of malnutrition and starvation that prevailed through the 1960s have largely disappeared, some 33 million people live in households that aren’t sure where their next meals are coming from — those whom policy analysts call the "food insecure." And with poverty on the rise — the United States experienced the biggest jump in poverty in a decade in 2001, to nearly 12 percent of the population — their ranks are growing. At the end of 2002, the US Conference of Mayors reported a 19 percent increase in the demand for emergency food over the previous year. Food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, and other emergency food providers now serve at least 23 million people a year. "They are America’s dirty little secret," says Larry Brown, who directs Brandeis University’s Center on Hunger and Poverty. "They are hardworking have-nots who cannot pay the rent, medical bills, and still feed their families."

Food and hunger are a lens through which we see what America has become: a country indifferent to the basic needs of its citizens, one that forces millions of its people to rely on private charity that is inadequate, inefficient, and frequently unavailable. As people with low and middle incomes have lost their jobs, their families line up for handouts, something many thought they’d never have to do. Hunger exposes the casualties of the ever-widening income gap between the rich and the rest of the population, and the damage inflicted by a 20-year campaign waged by right-wing think tanks and conservative politicians to defund and delegitimize government. That campaign has succeeded in returning the public’s view of poverty to the Darwinian one that prevailed before the dawn of the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century. It is emblematic of the right’s assault on public programs, which has used the old-fashioned notion of personal failing as the vehicle for accomplishing its political goals. Indeed, few politicians now advocate for the hungry.

The way we were

Beginning in the 1930s and into the 1940s, when Franklin Roosevelt articulated his Four Freedoms, including the freedom from want, America made a commitment, if not always perfectly executed, to feed the less fortunate. To be sure, the commitment was to some extent self-serving, in that food programs were designed to use up the surpluses produced by American agriculture. Still, there was a recognition that people couldn’t always help themselves, and over the following decades champions emerged in Congress to battle for the needs of hungry people. From Robert Kennedy etching the face of hungry kids into the American conscience during his widely publicized trips to Appalachia to George McGovern and Bob Dole fighting for food stamps on the floor of the Senate, politicians stood up to help the hungry, putting government resources behind school lunches; school breakfasts; WIC, which feeds pregnant women and young children; and child nutrition.

When the nutrition programs under the Older Americans Act were created in 1972, authorizing special food programs for the elderly, it was Richard Nixon who pushed for more funding. Throughout the 1970s, few Americans would have disputed the idea that the federal government had a major role to play in feeding the hungry. "Hunger was a problem we came much closer to solving in the 1970s," says James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. "Food stamps were more available, wages at the bottom were higher, and there was less inequality."

But then came the Reagan Revolution, with its emphasis on cutting government and the taxes needed to support it. In 1981, when the Heritage Foundation published its first Mandate for Leadership, the right laid out its plan "to restrain the food programs" and reduce the federal government’s role. Some of its proposals, like moving the functions of the Community Food and Nutrition Program to the states through block grants, have come to pass. That has meant less money, intensive competition among nonprofit organizations, and ultimately less outreach and advocacy for the hungry.

In his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan coined the term "safety net." Implicit in it was the idea that, like a trapeze artist who needs a safety net only to prevent rare catastrophes, people could provide for themselves most of the time, and government would help only those in dire need. Almost everyone, including many liberals, bought into the concept, which subtly shifted the purpose of social programs from assuring adequate living standards for all to helping the few who occasionally fall on hard times. Reagan attacked the legitimacy of food stamps by painting a picture of undeserving welfare queens who ate at the government trough while buying vodka with their benefits. That notion stuck, and public support for food programs waned.

Now conservatives are again on the attack. Last December in the Washington Post Outlook section, Douglas Besharov, director of the Project on Social and Individual Responsibility at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that the WIC program contributed to childhood obesity. He posited that real hunger is found "predominantly among people with behavioral or emotional problems such as drug addicts and the dysfunctional homeless," and he criticized liberal advocacy groups, unions, and farmers for standing in the way of reform and modernization, code words right-wingers often use to build support for dismantling a program while making it seem as though they’re improving it. Conservative columnists and op-ed writers picked up his arguments. This year WIC and the child-nutrition programs are scheduled for congressional reauthorization. While there’s no question Congress will reauthorize the programs, planting doubt about them increases the chance that politicians will change the rules to make fewer people eligible. WIC is the golden child of the food programs. If it is tarnished, the rest will lose favor as well.


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Issue Date: August 22 - August 28, 2003
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