The Washington Post had an excellent front-page article on Sunday on how food stamps are spawning epidemics of obesity and diabetes.
I especially enjoyed the article because, 30 years ago, a Washington Post editorial denounced me after I wrote a long piece (entitled “Feeding Everybody“) on the failure of federal food assistance for Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review. My article pointed out that food stamps were undermining the health of many recipients.
Here’s my riff on that article and its aftermath from my new memoir essays, Public Policy Hooligan:
“Feeding Everybody” expanded from 6500 to 9400 words during editing. The opening paragraphs strove to capture the history and political perfidy: “This is the story of how a handful of isolated incidents became justification for vastly increasing dependency in America; how a trivial number of examples stampeded Congress into a sweeping expansion of the welfare state; how congressmen repeatedly exaggerated the extent of hunger to justify trying to feed everybody; and how government, even though it increased spending twenty-fold, still could not achieve its original goals.”
An op-ed spinoff from the article was picked up by more than a hundred newspapers, and the Associated Press and United Press International wrote articles about my piece that appeared in hundreds of other papers. 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 also relished a two hour slug fest with one of the Carter administration’s top food stamp officials on WAMU, 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 conservative congressman I quoted had used the word “nigra” in the 1960s. In a subsequent syndicated column, Braden condemned me for “disturbing the public debate by raising questions that were settled long ago.”
“Feeding Everybody” spurred a Washington Post editorial which denounced me for concluding 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 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. 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 just wrote. (Task Force members could read, right?) But, since the other witnesses were from groups such as L.I.F.E. (Love Is Feeding Everyone), perhaps 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. I recommended abolishing food stamps and replacing them with a program that distributed boxes of healthy food to poor people.