by James Bovard
Last month we saw how political demagoguery helped make hunger a major issue in American politics beginning in the late 1960s. After Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, liberals and their media allies largely declared victory over hunger. Carter was a humane progressive and there was no reason to beat that drum — especially since food-aid programs continued gradually expanding.
But in November 1980, Ronald Reagan defeated Carter, and the nation had the most conservative-sounding president since the New Deal. The liberal media vilified Reagan’s efforts to curb social spending; he was sometimes tagged as a fascist for his budget-cutting efforts. Thanks in part to a severe recession, food-stamp spending soared 44 percent between 1980 and 1983 and the number of recipients increased by several million. But the media fanned a hunger crisis by using the same shaky claims that they had trumpeted in the prior decade.
The fact that Reagan proposed budget cuts was sufficient proof of mass hunger, notwithstanding that federal food-program spending actually increased. Facts rarely interrupted the morality play. As long as handout advocates flourished a handful of punchy phrases and horror stories, nothing else mattered. And every anecdote had to be accepted as a Revealed Truth, or else the doubter was automatically damned.
Liberal “activists” also claimed that Reagan’s policies amounted to a tragic roll-back of a great success. A former top Carter administration official declared that, during Carter’s presidency, food stamps “had virtually ended hunger and malnutrition in the U.S.” Dr. Jean Mayer, president of Tufts University and a long-time hunger “activist,” claimed that hunger was “the one social problem that we had eliminated.”
By early 1983, opponents were using allegations of mass hunger to seek to de-legitimize the Reagan administration. But the number of food-stamp recipients had increased sevenfold since the 1960s. By the early 1980s, low-income people could get eight federally paid meals a day. I was mystified by the hubbub and proposed an article on “the Great Hunger Hoax” to Policy Review, and editor John O’Sullivan leaped at the idea.
I wanted to learn whether the expansion of food programs had fundamentally improved low-income diets. I had learned how to analyze and interpret the raw data from national nutrient-intake surveys while running a typing business near Virginia Tech in the late 1970s. Some of my favorite customers were graduate students in human nutrition and, while typing their term papers and theses, I became familiar with the methodologies and controversies in evaluating food-aid programs. I visited USDA headquarters to garner the latest unpublished nutritional data. I went to the Library of Congress and carted armloads of dusty old studies from the stacks to peruse in the main reading room. I found that government feeding programs had an abysmal nutritional record. Nor was there any evidence of a dietary golden era during the Carter administration thanks to government handouts. The reports on the programs’ failures had vanished in the Memory Hole. Instead, the government relied on “body counts” — looking solely at the number of people fed or meals shoveled out. As long as politicians appeared benevolent, food programs were a roaring success.
The Policy Review piece caused a firestorm when it came out in September 1983. On a local television talk show, I sparred with future CIA chief Leon Panetta, who was then chairman of the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over food stamps. I relished the two-hour slug fest with one of the Carter administration’s top food-stamp officials on a Washington public-radio station. NPR fans flooded the station’s call-in lines and repeatedly implied that my parents had never been married. On another Washington radio show, Pat Buchanan’s liberal co-host, Tom Braden, was so dumbfounded by me that he kept repeating that a Texas Democratic congressman I quoted had used bigoted rhetoric in the 1960s. Braden later condemned me for “disturbing the public debate by raising questions that were settled long ago.” Pat Buchanan wrote a column about the piece that helped put it on the conservative — and White House — radar screen.
“Feeding Everybody” also spurred a Washington Post editorial that denounced me for asserting that “hungry people in America have only themselves to blame.” My article said no such thing, but that technicality did not impede the Post’s wrath. The Post’s biggest revelation was that I favored turning back the clock to the Middle Ages: “Mr. Bovard blames agricultural mechanization … for much of the poverty problem.” But, the Post tut-tutted, “a return to subsistence farming” will not “commend itself to many as a desirable course for this country’s economic and social development.” My article had noted that the 1967 Mississippi Delta unemployment surge (which helped spark the national hunger alarm at that time) was caused in part by the extension of minimum-wage laws to agriculture work, which swayed farmers to rely on machinery to harvest cotton. To accuse someone who abhorred unnecessary hard labor of favoring “subsistence farming” was the ultimate cheap shot. (A dozen years later, the Washington Post magazine cited my work in an article refuting wildly exaggerated claims of a national hunger epidemic.)
Reagan responded to the hunger hubbub by appointing a Task Force on Food Assistance in late 1983. They paid coach fare for me to fly to Los Angeles to offer my two cents at their first public hearing. I didn’t see much point in testifying, since I had nothing to offer except what I had just written. (Task Force members could read, right?) But since the other witnesses were from groups such as L.I.F.E. (Love Is Feeding Everyone), maybe the task force simply wanted to hear a different tune. I rattled on and answered questions for perhaps 20 minutes, but don’t recall the exchanges with panel members. A few months later, I testified at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing chaired by Jesse Helms. Helms was one of the few members of Congress willing to stoutly oppose the expansion of food stamps. (His zeal against wasteful government spending did not extend to the tobacco program beloved by his North Carolina constituents.)
As the 1980s progressed, the hunger issue became increasingly sensationalized. The high point came in 1986 when millions of people bonded for the Hands Across America (HAAC) extravaganza to publicize the plight of the hungry. HAAC presumed that if five million people could link up and simultaneously sing “America the Beautiful,” the nation’s social problems would practically be solved. An HAAC flyer promised that it would be “the largest interactive event in the history of mankind” and the “greatest moment of shared concern and hope ever.”
HAAC’s goal was to raise $50 million — the equivalent of three days’ worth of the national food-stamp budget. HAAC focused its effort on whipping up public guilt and anxiety over hunger. Much of the $10 each person was asked to pay to stand in line would be used to bankroll the hunger lobby for a massive campaign to persuade Congress to spend more for food stamps and other federal food programs.
HAAC’s core message was that “the problems of hunger and homelessness in the U.S. are growing at a frightening pace.” One of the organizers even claimed on television that “there is widespread hunger and famine in America.” And the only way to absolve the mass guilt was through increased federal spending. Coca Cola was the largest donor, providing $10 million to get the HAAC show on the road. (Food-stamp recipients are heavy purchasers of soft drinks.)
A 25-year retrospective on HAAC published by Mental Floss observed, “The participants couldn’t fully stretch from sea to shining sea given Hands’ circuitous route, so long ribbons or lengths of rope had to stand in for actual people for up to a hundred miles in areas like deserts. The Los Angeles Times reported that there were huge gaps in the line in some of the dodgier sections of East LA, and volunteers’ efforts to recruit people from their front porches to join the chain didn’t generate any interest.” A National Coalition for the Homeless spokesman complained to the New York Times that HAAC organizers “spent too much to raise too little and promoted a national extravaganza empty of content.’’
The following month, a House Select Committee on Hunger held a hearing to follow up on the ruckus HAAC raised. Aging folk singer Judy Collins was HAAC’s official rep, and she lamented, “In this nation, where the lives of so many are blessed with abundance, I feel shame when I see the hungry and homeless.” But the issue failed to catch fire — in part because the nation was in the middle of the Reagan economic boom.
Food-stamp enrollment surged during the recession of the early 1990s and then trended downward for the rest of the decade. The Clinton administration launched some food-stamp recruiting efforts, especially by using AmeriCorps. When I was investigating that program in the late 1990s, I traveled to Mississippi to see first-hand an AmeriCorps program that claimed to be conducting “door-to-door canvassing to identify potential food-stamp recipients” and also providing “assistance … in completing necessary applications for food stamps.” The stated goal of the program was to enroll “75% of surveyed rural Mississippi residents who are eligible for food stamps, but are not receiving them.” When I interviewed the program director in Greenville, Mississippi, she initially denied that the program had much to do with food stamps. I was surprised that she was so evasive after the program’s annual reports to AmeriCorps had offered ample details of its recruiting campaign. When I returned to Washington, I spoke to the AmeriCorps inspector general about the peculiar reaction. The IG did a little digging, the FBI joined in, and the chief of that program was convicted and sent to prison. It turned out that the organization had a bunch of ghost employees on the payroll.
The Mississippi program was part of four AmeriCorps “Beyond Food” programs devoted to boosting food assistance. The Congressional Hunger Center (CHC), the lead grantee for the “Beyond Food” programs, exemplified AmeriCorps’s humility. In its 1999 grant application, it stated, “Beyond Food/DC exists to fight hunger by developing leaders…. Our members … learn in a ‘Capital’ environment where some of our nation’s greatest humanitarian experts work.”
When I interviewed AmeriCorps chief Harris Wofford, I asked how food-stamp recruiting meshed with his statements that AmeriCorps promoted self-reliance. Wofford replied, “A self-reliant citizen knows what their [sic] opportunities are and figures out how to make use of those opportunities.” Apparently, the new, improved key to self-reliance is knowing the address of the welfare office.
A strong economy and congressional welfare-reform legislation combined to trim food-stamp rolls. By 2000, there were 17 million food-stamp recipients — lower than at most times during the 1980s. But with the victory of George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, food stamps would soon be expanded to burnish his “compassionate conservative” bona fides.
In part 3, we shall see how “hunger” was used to purchase votes and affect election outcomes.
This article was originally published in the January 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.