Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
It seems self-evident. A person who does not have enough to eat will experience hunger. Since the Great Depression, the US government has provided food assistance to people who were hungry. Although responding to hunger was not the reason the direct assistance began, the ethical underpinnings soon developed, and for three-quarters of a century Americans have recognized the societal obligation to help those who need food.
Now, however, Republicans in Congress deny a moral obligation to help those in need. Their callousness is historic: On July 11, Republicans in the House deleted the nation’s general food assistance program from the existing law that is usually called the Farm Bill.
While it is true that charitable organizations and churches have provided, and continue to provide, some food relief for those in need, their efforts fall far short of satisfying that need. Without the general food assistance program, lately known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), some 50 million Americans would be what is now called food insecure; that is, they would be hungry some of the time because they do not have adequate meals three times a day.
The history of public food assistance in the US makes clear how we got to this place. Public food assistance began in the 1930s as crop support for farmers. Farm commodity prices were depressed because many people could not buy food during the Great Depression. Efforts by farmers to grow more crops to make up for the low prices pushed the prices still lower, leading to surpluses, much of which were wasted. The Congressional response to these surpluses was to make loans to farmers to allow them to store their surplus non-perishable crops until prices were better.
When farmers began defaulting on the loans, Congress allowed them to give their crops to the government, which sold them in international commerce and also made them available for distribution to those in need of food in a way that did not disrupt domestic commerce. In 1935, the first commodity distributions were authorized. The motivation for these distributions came mostly from concern about widespread malnutrition among children.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) made surplus commodities available for school lunch programs, nonprofit summer camps for children, charitable institutions, and families in need of food assistance. Later, child care centers were given commodities, the Bureau of Indian Affairs distributed food to Native Americans who were in need, and private welfare organizations provided the same assistance to the needy both within and outside the United States. In the 1950s, all schoolchildren, without regard to their need, could buy reduced-price milk. I remember paying 4 cents for a half-pint at the school cafeteria. Those in need could get the milk at no cost.
In the 1960s, the nation began to focus more on the need, especially among children, for food assistance and less on the distribution of foodstuffs bought through the price support programs of the USDA. School breakfast programs, summer feeding programs, adult food programs, and programs to meet the food needs of the elderly were developed, mostly administered through the states. New programs aimed at helping meet the nutrition needs of pregnant women and those with infants were developed.
In more recent decades, food assistance has been directed through food banks and general feeding programs that were once known as soup kitchens. Assistance to families in the form of food stamps that could be used like money at stores to purchase groceries have been supplanted by credit cards for the same purpose. While concern for the nutrition of all of our citizens has become a prime factor in the increase of nutrition assistance programs, many food assistance programs continue to be related to the government’s price supports for farmers and the surplus food that farmers produce.
Since the late 1700s, soup kitchens have been generally well regarded by most people, who see them as a vital need in a civilized society, but there have always been critics who think they encourage dependency and attract undesirable people to the part of town where the services are provided. Those criticisms continue to be heard and are part of the mean-spiritedness of today’s Republicans who feel no moral obligation to help those whose economic fortunes wax and wane with the capitalist economy. But these same Republicans now talk about waste, fraud, and abuse in these food assistance programs without much evidence to support their position.
The expanded food assistance programs of the 1960s and 1970s were severely curtailed in the early 1980s after Ronald Reagan became president. A 2002 government survey found that 90% of the then-existing food banks, 80% of the food kitchens, and all “known food rescue organizations” were created after 1981. Even Reagan’s mild Republicanism had a devastating effect on our collective responsibility to help those who were hungry.
While the private charitable efforts of the nation have taken up some of the slack created by Reagan’s cutbacks in food assistance, they have not been enough to meet the needs of people during economic downturns. Currently, the government allocates about $105 billion for food assistance. Indiana University’s Center for Philanthropy reported that in 2005, total charitable giving in the US was about $252 billion. Of that amount, less than $60 billion went to programs that included some food assistance. These figures suggest that private sector giving cannot possibly make up for the loss of federal government expenditures for food assistance.
Republicans seem to have distorted views about the amount of food assistance that is actually provided to those who need it. The SNAP program currently provides about $4.45 per day per person – less than what most people spend on a hamburger and soft drink. As for fraud, it amounts to no more than 1% of the total, far less than Republicans would have us believe. And the fraud is not committed only by recipients. Some of that 1% in fraud is committed by food retailers who lie on their applications to be approved to participate in the program.
Most Americans support the federal government’s food assistance efforts, but the House Republicans do not reflect this broad national compassion toward people who have inadequate food resources. They are unwilling to accept that our founders viewed the collective efforts of the people, through the government, to include providing for “the general welfare.” This point was so important to the founders’ understanding of the social contract they were creating that they provided for efforts to promote the general welfare in both the Preamble to the Constitution and in Section 8, which created the power to tax, provide for the common defense, and provide for the general welfare.
Virtually all of the Republicans voting against food assistance on July 11 support the right to life of the unborn. It is apparent that their concern for life does not extend beyond nine months of gestation.
Today’s Republicans can be fairly described much like the main character in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” before he has an epiphany. Ebenezer Scrooge has only disgust for the poor, that group that he believes the world would be better off without, thus, “decreasing the surplus population.” Scrooge thinks the poor are most adequately cared for by being in prisons and workhouses, which were dismal institutions of indentured servitude and impoverishment for the destitute during his time.
Unlike Republicans, 69 percent of Americans believe the federal government should have a major role in providing food to low-income families, according to a 2012 poll by Hart Research Associates, which measures attitudes toward the poor. But as a result of gerrymandering of congressional districts, most Americans are not fairly represented by people who share their values. In the last election, more voters chose Democrat candidates, but the House has about a 55% majority of Republicans. Gerrymandering is one way that the minority diminishes the voice of the majority.
Anyone who still believes that the SNAP program is too generous should live for a week spending less than $1.50 per meal. That might make a prison or workhouse look pretty good. To learn more about hunger in America, food insecurity, and the way our economy exacerbates these problems, see the new documentary “A Place At the Table” and view the Frontline program “Two American Families.” Knowledge about our country and its economic system is essential to being a good citizen.
© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos
LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.