Southern Hunger in the Eighties: Win this one for the Reaper
By Allen Tullos
Vol. 6, No. 6, 1984, pp. 6-11, 13-16
“There’s no basis for this demagoguery that somehow we have punished, and are picking on, or trying to get our recovery on the backs of the needy. . . there is not one single fact or figure. “–President Reagan.
“It must be recognized that the needy are and always have been consumers, and they would have purchased cheese had it not been given to them.”–Robert F. Anderson, executive director of the National Cheese Institute.
Back in February of this weary year, after fifteen months, of field investigation, public hearings and data confirmed a fact of living in the Reagan Era. Hunger and malnutrition,
on the decline in the United States since the early 1970s, were again on the rise. “We are shocked,” said Dr. Larry Brown, chair of the Commission, “at how widespread hunger and malnutrition are in New England. I think the thing that worries us most is the degree to which hunger is a relatively better economy and fairly extensive health care system, particularly in a state like Massachusetts.”
The Citizens’ Commission, composed of health and social service professionals, was called into being by the Harvard School of Public Health at the request of religious groups and emergency food providers in the six New England states. Food kitchens have strained (some have collapsed) in the effort of the last few years to provide for larger and larger numbers of people in need. The question was put: Why the increase in hunger?
“Perhaps the most shocking thing we have found,” the Commission members answered in their report, American Hunger Crisis, is that the return of hunger to America is the result of conscious policies of our federal government . . . Hunger returned as a result of governmental will and the weakening of the programs that once worked so well.”
For its part, the Reagan Administration has not only denied the existence of a hunger problem, it has initiated a war against the poor. “We’ve had considerable information,” said presidential counselor and attorney-general nominee Edwin Meese at the height of the recent recession, “that people go to soup kitchens because the food is free and that’s easier than paying for it.”
During its first four years, the Administration and its allies in Congress (including a critical number of Southerners) cut more than 4.6 million low-income Americans from federal food-assistance and dropped 3.2 million needy children from school lunch programs. During these same years the percentage of Americans living in poverty has grown to the highest level in twenty years and the number of poor people has increased by more than six million. About 35 million people are now officially poor ($10,178 annual income for a family of four). Another twelve million Americans live near enough to the poverty line to be eligible for food stamps. As Reagan’s second season begins, Meese, White House chief of staff James A. Baker, budget director David Stockman and a group of domestic advisors have prepared plans for another assault on food and nutrition assistance, health care services and the benefit levels of federal payment programs.
In a lapse into social Darwinism, poverty and hunger have once again become fashionable tools used by government and business to engineer conformity, resignation and despair. Instead of enforcing a commitment to all citizens’ right to a just and decent life, we see the executive power of the federal government employed to starve and strong-arm the poor.
“I think we don’t pay enough attention to the fact that when we’re talking about poor people in this country, we’re taking about children,” says Dr. C. Arden Miller, chairman of the University of North Carolina’s department of maternal and child health. “Children make up about fifty-one percent of the US poor. The public image is of the shiftless, lazy, able-bodied male who could be working if he was enterprising enough. That’s not the problem. Since the mid1970’s, an increased proportion of children live in poverty.”
In addition to children, many of the poor are elderly. Others are people in chronic bad health. May live in the rural South where there are few jobs to be had. Over thirty” six percent of female-headed households live in poverty. Among non-white, female-headed households, the rate is higher than seventy percent.
Many of the poor hold steady jobs and remain poor the “new poor,” the working poor in fast food restaurants, in janitorial, maintenance and service work, in non-union factories. The punitive nature of current federal policy toward the poor combined with the everyday workings of capitalist economics result in young black women locking their hungry children in unheated apartments while they piece together a schedule of part-time work that best suits the needs of the burger masters at the Golden Arches.
Among the poorest forty-percent of the US population, purchasing power has declined every year since 1980. At the other end of the spending and accumulation ladder, we see
the rewards–as well as the widening gap between rich and poor. This spring’s Congressional Budget Office report shows that the Reagan budget cuts and tax-law changes which have been enacted so far have resulted in an annual loss of $390 for households with incomes of less than $10,000 a year, an annual gain of a thousand dollars for households making between $20,000 and $40,000, and an extra helping of $8,300 a year for households with annual incomes of $80,000.
Among the affluent and the pretenders to affluence (for consumer debt, like the Reagan budget, stands at record levels), the pursuit of private interest now justifies our detachment from the demands of a just society.
The current chasing after the signs and sighs of success is capitalized upon by merchandisers in roadside billboards that pitch such goods as “the most expensive beer around.” Media ads foreground particular items even as they pique desire for an ensemble of convivial accessories. “So worldly, so welcome!” “A man with a good car needs no justification.” As a critic notes about the current crop of favorite television shows, “On TV, everyone is rich.” In reality, unlike primetime, forty-three percent of the nation’s personal income goes to only one-fifth of US families; the poorest fifth receive five percept.
As the climate of Reaganism seeks to make both hay and example of the poor, our deeply irrational military spending binge provides a bounty for an intricate web of Pentagon and foreign forces, contractors, sub-contractors and research institutions. Monied strands of this web wrap themselves throughout every congressional district and municipality–perhaps making impossible the cutting of our ties of destructive dependency. Any discussion of hunger and poverty, of housing and health care, of the arts and education–in the South and the nation–must reflect upon the ransom we pay the Pentagon to hold ourselves hostage.
Let ‘Em Eat Anecdotes
Early in l984, prompted by the findings of the Citizens’ Commission on Hunger in New England, Dr. Larry Brown of Harvard’s School of Public Health helped to organize the Physician Task Force on Hunger in America. With support from the Field Foundation, the Task Force began to assess the extent of hunger in other sections of the country, including the South. Historically the nation’s most impoverished and malnourished section, the South of the 1980s finds eighteen percent of its people living in poverty. This compares with fourteen percent in the West and about thirteen percent for both Midwest and Northeast.
“Our nation has a serious problem to deal with,” Dr. Brown has said at press conferences wherever the Task Force has travelled during the past year. “We are reporting our findings along the way to the American public and to Congress. We will present a national report in February of 1985.”
In May and June a dozen members of the Task Force on Hunger began the Southern circuit of their tour with visits to Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and North Carolina. Among the group were Rev. Kenneth Dean and Dr. Aaron Shirley, veterans of the Southern hunger surveys coordinated by Rev. Dean and Leslie Dunbar with the Southern Regional Council and the Field Foundation in 1967 and again in 1977.
In Mississippi, the Task Force on Hunger spent several days in Jackson and in the Delta–where poverty has increased from thirty percent in 1980 until it now includes over fifty percent of that area’s population. “The hunger and malnutrition I saw in Mississippi are the worst that I’ve come face to face with,” said Dr. Naomi Kistin, a veteran inner-city pediatrician from Chicago’s Cook County Hospital who travelled with the Task Force.
About 800,000 Mississippians, a third of the state’s entire population, have incomes which make them eligible for food stamps. Only nineteen percent of the population is actually receiving federal food aid. This puts about 300,000 Mississippians at highest risk of hunger. The maximum monthly AFDC payment in the state is $120 for a family of four–the lowest amount in the nation.
Despite the well established fact that feeding programs for the elderly dramatically improve their health, and the fact that in Mississippi 118,563 elderly are officially poor, only 12,300 receive any federal food assistance.
Most elderly Southerners suffer from one or more chronic diseases which require special diets. The Task Force on Hunger heard many stories like that of Mississippian Laura Jane Allen, age seventy-six, who couldn’t afford the diet her doctor had prescribed: “They tell me what I should eat. I’m supposed to have fresh vegetables and fish and stay away from that pork, salt and cheese–but l just can’t buy the right food with the money I have.”
In Tutwiler, Mississippi, a social worker reported that of every hundred hospital in-patients she sees each month, about one-third are malnourished. A nurse in Greenwood said, “it’s a vicious cycle. Before you know it, they’re in the hospital because their blood sugar dropped too low or they had an insulin reaction from not being able to eat. We have patients eating the wrong things because those are the only things they can get and they wind up in the hospital with strokes.”
At a Task Force hearing in the Delta, four hundred people crowded a hall. “There were enough people present who wanted to testify,” says Joie Kammer of the Catholic St. Francis Center, “to have had the hearing go on indefinitely. and there were telephone calls from the elderly asking the doctors to come to their homes as they were unable to come to the hearing.”
Many of the hungry in the Delta are victims of the long-term unemployment which has accompanied the mechanization of Mississippi plantations.
Joyce Stancill, a home health nurse serving the elderly of Greenwood, told the Task Force, “Most of my clients have been maids or ‘yard-boys’ or field workers on a plantation, for white people, and a lot of them have never had social security payments. They’re not able to get social security now because the man worked them for forty or fifty years and never paid in a dime. It’s horrible to see what our old people have had to go through.”
Rising Infant Mortality
In Alabama the Physician Task Force split into two groups–one visiting Birmingham and several west Alabama counties–and the other travelling to Lowndes, Butler and Montgomery counties. They went into soup kitches, feeding programs and food pantries. They talked to officials. They collected state and local studies and reports. “Most importantly,” says Dr. Brown, “we went into dozens and dozens and dozens of homes.”
“Some of the counties we saw in Mississippi and South Alabama are on a par with the Third World. I have never seen so many empty refrigerators.”
At the kitchen of the Trinity Episcopal Church in the depressed steel city of Bessemer, Alabama, Rev. Dean observed that “entire families are showing up at these soup lines, something unheard of since the Depression.” Vestry members of Trinity Episcopal voted to begin the soup kitchen in 1982 at the urging of their minister, Rev. Peter Horn, who had watched a trickle of requests for food turn into a torrent within a few months.
The Physician Task Force on Hunger scorns the policies Of Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and a dozen other states that refuse aid for families with dependent children to families in which both “able-bodied” parents–although unable to find a job–continue to live in the same household. This state policy promotes the break-up of homes: the father often moves out so that his family won’t be dropped from AFDC.
In Alabama, a maximum AFCD payment of $148 a month for a family of four requires living on the outskirts of possibility. With food stamps included, the maximum allotment for a mother and three children is $400 a month or $4,800 in annual income. The basic welfare grants are not adequate for “even the most frugal purchase of necessities.”
In Montgomery, Alabama Welfare Commissioner Leon Frazier told the group that cutbacks in federally supported daycare had left “literally thousands of low-income children and hundreds of handicapped adults in the state without the assurance of even one nourishing meal a day.”
In 1982, Alabama’s infant mortality rate increased for the first time in many years for both blacks and whites from 12.9% per thousand live births to 13.8%. Among black infants the rate increased sharply from eighteen to 20.1
deaths per one thousand live births. Yet, as the Task Force on Hunger’s preliminary field investigation summary (October, 1984) notes, even these figures mask higher rates for areas that are most affected by poverty and hunger. Hale County, in western Alabama, has an infant mortality rate of thirty-one, almost three times the national rate and as high as many Third World countries. More than ten percent of babies born in Hale County have low birth weights–a major factor contributing to infants’ “failure to thrive,”–leaving them susceptible to many other health problems.
“We are all quite shaken at what we have seen,” Dr. Brown said at the end of the Task Force’s first foray into the South. “We did not see kwashiokor and marasmus*–which are signs of extreme malnutrition that you see in Third World countries, but we did see widespread hunger–and it was not hard to find. We saw malnutrition that was altogether too extensive. Children are failing to grow properly, some are dying.
“There were three tornadoes while we were in Alabama. The news media and the attention of the public was on those tornadoes, which killed seven people. Every week in Alabama twice that number of children die of infant mortality within the first year of life, due to nutrition related illnesses.
“Just this morning I held on my lap a six-year-old child who is the size of a three-year-old. She is not getting enough to eat. We walked across the street from this child’s daycare center and talked to a mother out in the yard. There were two more children there who were small, thin and anemic.
“In a Salvation Army soup kitchen in Montgomery, the director told us that the economy, if it is improving, is not improving the lives of the people that he sees. They were serving more people per month than they had served in the last twenty-seven months.
Take A Twinkie and Wait
Of the dozen or so recent studies of hunger in the United States, all–except for the report of President Reagan’s Task Force on Food Assistance (January, 1984)–show clearly that hunger exists in every state, in every city and town.
“Members of the Reagan Administration have referred hunger evidence as ‘anecdotal’ material,” says Dr. Brown. “I can tell you that our research has not been anecdotal. And I can tell you that looking in a refrigerator and finding three eggs and a piece of processed cheese and water–as I have seen–isn’t an anecdote for that family, whose child–a five-year-old boy, has had no milk for three weeks. He eats Cheerios and water for breakfast. His mother had tried to get emergency food stamps but was turned down.
“It’s not hard to find hungry people in the United States. It’s not hard at all. First, you go to poor neighborhoods, in the cities, in the towns, in the country. You talk with the people who live there. Another way you can find out about hunger very quickly is to ask the teachers in daycare centers and the Head Start programs what kind of appetites the children have on Monday morning. What we’ve seen across the country leaves no doubt that hunger is a problem for millions of people in America.
“When you go into the neighborhoods that we went in and you walk down the street, you start talking with people, you go in their homes, you say, “Can we please see where you prepare your food?” And they take you in the kitchen and open an empty or nearly empty refrigerator…It might be the refrigerator of a women with two children, she’s pregnant. And she has three sticks of butter in there.
“Ironically, people mislead you if you ask them if they are hungry. But not like Mr. Meese said, as though people were out trying to get something for nothing. You ask them, ‘How are you doing for food? How are the kids doing?’
“Over and over again, with only a few exceptions, the response is ‘Oh, we’re getting by. We’re doing all right.’
“The lady I just told you about, I asked her that question and she said, ‘We’re making it. We’re doing okay.’ When I asked her to take us into her kitchen, we found the empty refrigerator.
“People answer that way because of pride. I have children and the last thing I would ever want to do would be to acknowledge to somebody that I couldn’t feed them.
“These instances, multiplied over and over again paint a picture in America which cannot be considered or dismissed as anecdotal and which doesn’t deserve to exist in our nation.
“What we see is a picture of deprivation, which, while it may not be as serious in degree as it was in the late 1960s, seems to be more pervasive. Poverty and the hunger which it generates are no longer limited to any particular subpopulation groups. Hunger cuts across the lines of race now, and to some extent it cuts across class lines. Hunger is reaching the “new poor”–people who have never been hungry before, people who have not been in poverty before. Those who have been poor for a long time are worse off now than they were. But the new poor have appeared as a result of Reagan policies and the economy.”
The face of Southern hunger looks different than it did twenty years ago. “We’re not seeing the kind of starvation that appears as thin people and stunted growth,” observes Task Force member Dr. Joyce Lashof, Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley. “In their ragged form, the food assistance programs that America constructed in the 1960s and ’70s are keeping us from going back to where we were. The soup kitchens and the food stamps and similar programs are helping.
“What we often see,” continues Dr. Lashof, “are people who are actually overweight because they’re eating the wrong foods. They’re not getting the nutrients they need. They’re malnourished in terms of adequate proteins and vitamins.”
“President Reagan’s Task Force on Food Assistance,” Dr. Brown points out, “did not engage in an effort which permitted them to understand the dimensions of the hunger problem in the United States. The governor’s office in Mississippi came and testified before our Task Force on Hunger when we went toJackson. Mississippi state officials and private charities gave Reagan’s Task Force a document of testimony five inches thick. None of that was reflected in the President’s Task Force Report.”
Michael Raff, director of the state of Mississippi’s Office of Human Development, agrees that testimony of Mississippians to the President’s Task Force was “totally ignored.”
“I was asked by the executive director of the President’s Task Force,” Dr. Brown continues, “if we would cooperate with them–could they send people to go to our hearing up in New England? We agreed and they did. They also asked for, and we provided, the names of experts around the country in nutrition and food policy. Not one of those experts was ever contacted by the President’s Task Force.”
“The President’s Task Force didn’t even want to come to Chicago,” recalls Cook County (IL) pediatrician D.T. Kistin. “They chose to have their hearings in Rockford where it’s very hard for the large majority of people in our area who are hungry or who are active around these issues to even get to. They made a point of limiting the number of people that they would hear to very small numbers.”
“The Reagan Task Force” adds Dr. Brown, “ignored the evidence from its own federal agencies–including the Department of Agriculture–that show hunger to be a serious problem. They also failed to collect data and failed to go into the homes of the hungry.”
As its major recommendation, the report of the President’s Task Force proposed that states be allowed to drop out of the food stamp and other federal food aid programs and instead receive block grants to distribute as they saw fit. The proposed block grants, rejected by Congress, disguised one of the Administration’s steps to dismantle what remains of a national committment against hunger. Block grants would put an end to uniform eligibility and benefit standards and move the struggle for food assistance out of Washington–where a weakened, but still fiesty, welfare lobby is centered.
In the South particularly, the poor have few friends in governors’ mansions and state legislatures.
The very Southern politicians who could best serve their
constituents in need are often the most embittered and uncharitable. In his tenure as chairman of the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, North Carolina’s Jesse Helms has proved a staunch foe of poor and hungry people through his opposition to the WIC program (which provides prescribed foods to pregnant and nursing women and children under age five) and to the food stamp program. The Charlotte Observer editorialized that for all his talk of protecting the lives of the unborn, Helms has done little to support the lives of infants after birth.
The attention of Senator Helms fell upon Hunger Task Force director Brown shortly after the doctor had testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee in April of 1983. Brown told of malnutrition studies he had conducted at Boston City Hospital which found underweight babies and a “failure to thrive” at three times the expected rate.
Although Helms was absent during Dr. Brown’s testimony, he soon sent him a seven-page questionnaire.
“The questions basically were designed to discredit the methodology of the study,” Brown recalls. “He challenged me on the school breakfast and school lunch guidelines. He wanted to know how they were set. I said they were set by the federal government.”
Helms’ staff insisted that malnutrition was normal among the urban poor in Boston. Brown suggested that there should be nothing normal about infants failing to grow.
States of Fear
Throughout this summer and on into the fall, the Physician Task Force on Hunger continued to visit Southern states and to collect materials and testimony. Task Force members toured the lengths of North Carolina and Tennessee before going on to Texas and the Southwest. In October, the group released its uniformly grim preliminary field reports.
Poverty in Tennessee has risen from 16.5~o of the state’s population in 1980 to over twenty percent in 1984. Four-fifths of Tennessee’s poor consist of women, children and the elderly.
Like Alabama and Mississippi, Tennessee provides no AFDC for two-parent families who are unemployed. For those who do receive AFDC, Tennessee has the lowest standard of need in the US–a family of four must earn less than three-hundred dollars a month to be eligible (the federal poverty level is $825). The state has no school breakfast program. It has no relief program for jobless adults who are not receiving unemployment compensation. Tennessee’s state and local sales tax can range as high as 81/2%.
Southern state legislatures, searching for revenues for an array of needs (most recently, public education) and yet lacking the independence to tax business and the wealthy, have turned increasingly to sales taxes. The results fall hardest on these states’ most politically powerless people. In Mississippi and Alabama (where the sales tax rates are six and 6.7 percent respectively), as in Tennessee, sales tax applies to food and to food stamps and represents a regressive, direct tax on poor people.
With the unemployment rate in east Tennessee and western North Carolina running upwards of forty percent, the Task Force heard United Methodist Minister Jim Sessions of Knoxville report that in the past three years, Appalachia has lost one-and-a-half jobs for every one gained. “There is no recovery here,” observes Sessions.
“With purchasing power down and poverty up,” the Task Force writes in its October field investigation summary of the Southern states, “it seems unlikely that improvements in the economy which help the better-off will have any impact on those who are not. Those who are “recovering” were never hungry, and those who are hungry are not recovering.”
In North Carolina, Dr. Brown and local representatives of the Task Force tied hunger to the larger context of health and the Reagan Administration’s general persecution of the poor. Rev. Mac Legerton of the Robeson County Clergy and Laity Concerned noted that county food stamp recipients had little money left after paying monthly bills to pay for medical needs. In mountainous Buncombe County, Task Force member Dr. Agnes Lattimer saw broader problems: “There appears to be considerable unmet need here . . . there is greater incidence of iron deficiency and limited means of prenatal care.”
The percentage of North Carolina’s total population living in poverty rose by forty-two percent between 1981 and 1983, yet, enrollment in the state’s food stamp program during the same period fell by more than a third. In addition, according to the University of North Carolina’s Nutrition Institute, while some 94,000 women, infants and children are currently enrolled in the WIC supplemental food program, at least 145,000 others have household incomes
which make them eligible. In North Carolina there are presently 415,000 poor children.
While acknowledging that “the desire for self-sufficiency Often makes people reluctant to seek help,” Dr. Brown and the Task Force are quick to point to deliberate patterns of obfuscation and intimidation being pursued by Reagan Administration welfare policy makers under the guise of “greater efficiency” and the pursuit of “welfare cheaters.” New monthly reporting requirements mean that many families must have their eligibility redetermined every month. This places extraordinary burdens on the needy, creates more processing errors and leads to eligible people being denied assistance. In one county, a sixty-four year-old paralyzed man was dropped from food stamps because he failed to come into the office for his recertification interview.
“The focus of the federal government is now based on the premise that hungry people are probably cheats,” says Dr. Brown.
In some locations, at the behest of federal officials, agents reportedly are sent out to sell food stamps on the street. The buyers are caught and the event is hailed as proof of widespread program fraud–even though no food stamp recipient was involved as buyer or seller.
Charges linking the food stamp program with fraud and with criminal prosecutions generate fear and embarrassment. Virginia Eldreth, food stamp administrator in Buncombe County (NC) notes this effect: “An elderly woman who had been hungry for weeks finally came in to apply for stamps. She ,was trembling as she filled out the forms. I asked her if she was all right. As it turned out, she was fearful she might make an error and be thrown in jail for fraud.”
Task Force members found some North Carolina food stamp offices decorated with posters announcing prosecution of persons incorrectly filling out their long and complicated applications.
As a food stamp administrator in Montgomery County, Alabama told the Task Force this summer, “The name of the game at the federal level is dollars and not people. We are under pressure about some elusive thieves that we are not finding. We are wasting money on administration that should be going to people.”
“Food stamp administrators,” Dr. Brown adds, “have told us they have had to divert workers from providing services and put them to work setting up thirteen and fourteen-member fraud units that pore over tremendous amounts of paper to see if people are getting overpaid three or four dollars a month. To do this paperwork, they have closed the food stamp outreach units which once tried to let hungry people know about the program. A lot of people who are in need are being missed.”
“There is a state of fear,” says Rev. Kenneth Dean, a Task Force member who once headed the Mississippi council On Human Relations, “among the people running federal programs because audit reviews have been used principally to harass the programs.”
“Over and over again,” adds Dr. Naomi Kistin, “we heard from people working on the food stamp program who said they had to spend all this money being careful not to have too high of an error rate. Finally we asked, “Is there any attention paid to the error rate in the other direction? How many people should be on those programs who aren’t? How big is your waiting list? How many people could benefit from this program if you could expand your services? Every place we went the waiting list held from a third to a hundred percent of the population being served.”
People who are persistent and lucky enough to get through the application forms, verifying documents, and bureaucratic intimidation are rewarded with an average food stamp benefit of forty-seven cents per meal. In addition,
they soon learn that the food stamps they receive won’t carry them through the month. “The problem is not that people don’t know how to spend their stamps,” a Texas food stamp administrator told the Task Force, “it’s just that no one can live on that amount.” Most recipients run out of food stamps a week or more before the month ends.
“Nor,” says Dr. Brown, “is there any way that the millions of tons of food taken from hungry people through federal budget cutbacks over the last four years can be made up by business, the for-profit sector and the non-profit sector. Businesses are not set up to feed people. And the churches and social service agencies can’t do enough. We need to immediately expand the food stamp program and provide it with adequate resources to reach people who are needy.”
“Why should the richest country in the world, asks Helen Wright, director of Urban Ministries in Raleigh–one of many North Carolina church groups trying to feed the hungry–“put the eighteen percent of the people in this state who live below the poverty line in the position of begging for food?”
By the time that the Physician Task Force on Hunger completed its Texas visit this fall, the group had become convinced of the pervasiveness of need everywhere they had travelled. In Houston, emergency food demand in the city’s soup kitchens has increased this year by one-thousand percent over 1980. To the southesast of Houston, in Pasadena, the Task Force considered the “irony of a middle-class neighborhood with neatly kept lawns, where people don’t have enough to eat. We saw a lot of once-stable families now in shaky circumstances.”
In Texas, New Mexico and the Southwest–as throughout the South–the hunger problem is substantial, especially jeopardizing the health of the most vulnerable population groups among the poor: the elderly, pregnant women, infants and young children.
Greed and the War Against the Poor
At a time when many Americans have settled into a steady diet of flag-eating, sword swallowing and credit card consumption, the notion that we all must share responsibility for the extent of hunger and poverty in our region, country and world does not go down easy. Unwilling to acknowledge the reality of a political and economic system which produces and is sustained by poverty and the fear of poverty, the fortunate blame the poor for their own plight. The apologists for greed–one thinks of the likes of William F. Buckley, George Will, Clarence Pendleton–encourage our blindness to social justice.
Toward the last week of each month, when the food stamps run out and the lines at the soup kitchesn grow longer, we begin to see the shape of America’s current hunger crisis. The immediate need–the one being addressed by the Physician Task Force on Hunger–is genuinely modest: to eliminate hunger and malnutrition in the US. Task Force members believe this need could be satisfied within six months, and for the total cost of one naval attack carrier. Given, however, the prevailing American spirit, the Physician Task Force’s aim appears unattainable for years to come. Instead, we will see the Reaganites attempt further cuts in assistance for the poor.
Outside the necessary focus of the Task Force on Hunger stand the implications of the draft of the recent Catholic bishops’ letter on the US economy judging the inequality of wealth within America and in the world as “morally unacceptable.” “The fulfillment of the basic needs of the poor,” write the bishops, “is of the highest priority. Personal decisions, social policies and power relationships must all be evaluated by their effects on those who lack the minimum necessities of nutrition, housing, education and health care.” The bishops argue for redress within a reformed capitalist structure.
That the bishops’ advocacies–which would essentially shore-up humanitarian features of the modern corporate welfare state–have provoked outraged cries of “meddlers” and “liberal lobbyists” suggests not only what may be in store for the Hunger Task Force, but just how far our present slide into laissez faire social Darwinism has carried us. Yet, there may be no better time than now, with liberalism in disarray, to reckon and sound the fundamental injustices of the white, men’s club that holds capitalism as its sacred faith. There may be no better time than now to put forward alternative futures to the corporate world vision. Discussions of a caring society, of economic democracy, of our bondage to militarism, of persisting racism, of the reasons that women-headed households make up the largest poverty group–all these discussions should simmer with the soup kitchens this winter, and in the coming months.
Guide to Published Sources
Kenneth A. Briggs. “Catholic Bishops Ask Vast Changes in Economy of U.S. New York Times, November 12,1984. Also in same issue, “Excerpts From Draft of Bishops’ Letter on the U.S. Economy.”
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. End Results: The Impact of Federal Policies Since 1980 on Low Income Americans. Washington. September, 1984. The Comined Effects of Major Changes in Federal Taxes and Spending Programs Since 1981. Washington. October 1984.
Citizens’ Commission on Hunger in New England. American Hunger Crisis. Boston. 1984.
Congressional Budget Office. The Combined Effects of Major Changes in federal Taxes and Spending Programs Since 1981. Washington. April, 1984.
Steve Curwood. “Through the Safety Net. Boston Globe, April 15, 1984.
Barbara Mahany. “Hunger in America” series. Chicago Tribune, Summer/Fall 1984.
Joan Oleck. “Doctors find evidence of malnutrition among some children in Eastern N.C.” Raleigh News and Observer, June 8, 1984.
John L. Palmer and Isabel V. Sawhill. The Reagan Record: An Assessment of America’s Changing Domestic Priorities. Washinton: The Urban Institute. August, 1984.
Physician Task Force on Hunger in America. Preliminary Field Investigation Summaries: “Hunger in Tennessee and North Carolina”; “Hunger in Mississippi and Alabama”; “Hunger in New Mexico and Texas”; “Hunger in Illinois and Missouri.” Boston. October, 1984.
Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward. The New Class War. New York: Pantheon. 1982.
U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. Money Income and Poverty Status of Families and Persons in the United States: 1983. Washington. August, 1984.