Yesterday’s Washington Times’ “Obama’s Obesity Epidemic” article is spurring some controversy. Rush Limbaugh quoted the piece and the liberal website Media Matters attacked his statements. Media Matters also asserted that “Bovard mislead his readers about obesity studies to craft a false narrative that food stamp use is linked to childhood obesity.” But there is far more evidence of that link that was included in the Times piece.
I mentioned in that article that the evidence of food stamps as a nutritional failure goes way back. Here’s a long piece I did on that topic in 1983. And here’s a link to a blog entry earlier this month on the controversy that article sparked – including a denunciation by the Washington Post.
If the following sprawling text is exasperating, here is a link to a PDF version of the printed pages of the 1983 article.
Policy Review Fall 1983
FEEDING EVERYBODY: How Federal Food Programs Grew and Grew
BYLINE: James Bovard; JAMES BOVARD is an investigative journalist.
LENGTH: 9410 words
It was 1967. In the previous five years, the number of people receiving food
stamps or surplus commodities had declined by 38 percent, the number of poor had
declined by almost 30 percent, the economy was booming, and incomes were rising
2 or 3 percent per year. But the Great Society was floundering: Liberals took a
beating in the 1966 congressional races, urban riots were eroding middle-class
guilt, and Vietnam was beginning to overshadow domestic events. The War on
Poverty, begun with such fanfare in 1964, was petering out, and the liberal
agenda appeared out of gas.
And then hunger was discovered.
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 in order to justify
trying to feed everybody; and how government, even though it increased spending
twentyfold, still could not achieve its original goals. This is also the story
of government at loggerheads, as one program spends $18 billion a year to
subsidize diets while other programs and regulations do everything possible to
raise food prices, in effect preventing the poor from getting adequate nutrition
as cheaply as possible.
Congress first vastly overestimated the amount of poverty-related hunger,
then set food assistance eligibility levels far above the poverty line, and then
insisted that anyone eligible for food aid would go hungry unless government fed
them. From the late 1960s to 1980, Congress continually expanded eligibility,
redoubled benefits, and ordered campaign after campaign to recruit people for
the dole. Yet the federal government today knows almost as little about the
extent and causes of malnutrition as it did in 1967.
The history of food assistance programs since the late 1960s marks an
important change in the American welfare state, from self-sufficiency as an
honor and a right to government exhortations that people accept handouts and
relinquish their pride. The expansion of food assistance is as much a
revolution of principle as of policy.
No one knows the total number of people government is feeding today. Federal
food programs have roughly 70 million enrollees — more than quadruple the 1960
enrollment of 16 million. Families can simultaneously participate in seven food
programs, and many get more from the government than self-supporting families
spend on their food.
Now that the federal government has entered the “feed everybody” business, as
one group after another has become eligible to eat at everyone else’s expense,
government takes responsibility for feeding people under 20 and over 60
regardless of their or their family’s income. The cutoff income for federal
food assistance for a family of four ($18,315) is now close to the median annual
income for a full-time, year-round worker ($16,955 in 1981). Forty-five percent
of pregnant women and infants in America are eligible for food handouts.
From 1939 to 1943 the U.S. Department of Agriculture distributed food stamps
to 13 million people, largely to help dispose of agricultural surpluses. The
original food stamp program was chock-full of fraud and abuse; the USDA
estimated that 25 percent of all coupons were abused, and the program was
For some years afterward, the poor somehow managed to feed themselves. A
1955 USDA dietary survey found that only 25 percent of America’s roughly 43
million poor had bad diets — diets containing less than two thirds of the
recommended daily allowance for essential nutrients. Seventy-five percent of
the poor provided themselves with adequate diets even though only a third were
on public assistance. n1
n1 USDA, Household Food Consumption Survey, 1955.
Nevertheless, in 1958 sixteen bills were introduced in Congress to bring back
food stamps. At 1958 House Agriculture Committee hearings, during the worst
recession since World War II, Representative Victor Anfuso (D.-New York),
apparently going for the headlines, declared, “. . . ten million people in the
United States . . . have inadequate incomes to buy the food they need . . .” n2
Representative George McGovern urged a food stamp program to provide benefits to
7 million or 8 million poor folk. There was no feeling among the committee or
witnesses that tens of millions of Americans needed free or subsidized food.
And it was not surprising that some of the poor were having trouble buying food,
since the USDA was spending more than $2 billion a year to drive up food prices
through price supports, acreage allotments, cropland set-asides, and the Food
for Peace program to dump surplus commodities overseas.
n2 House Committee on Agriculture, Food Stamp Program, 1958, p. 1.
In 1961 President Kennedy’s first executive order initiated pilot food stamp
programs in West Virginia and other states. Kennedy also doubled the number of
surplus commodities that government distributed to the poor; enrollment in this
program jumped to 6.4 million.
Kennedy’s pilot food stamp program was tightly run, included nutritional
education, and required participants to buy stamps at an average of 60 percent
of face value, depending on family income. When counties converted from surplus
commodity distribution to food stamps, many families dropped out because they
were afraid the USDA would check their incomes too closely, or because the
program was no longer worth their while. In St. Louis, for example, a person
simply had to declare himself needy to be eligible for free commodities. n3 A
1967 General Accounting Office report found that between 30 and 40 percent of
participants in the commodity distribution program had incomes exceeding
program-eligibility limits. n4 Also, many families did not want to tie up their
money in food stamps even though the stamps paid on the average a 66 percent
bonus over cash costs; that is, for $6 one could receive $10 worth of stamps.
n3 House Committee on Agriculture, Amend the Food Stamp Act of 1964, 1968, p.
n4 GAO, Review of Distribution of Government-Donated Food Commodities in
Selected Counties in Pennsylvania, 1967, p. 1.
There was a widespread consensus that the limited federal food assistance
programs had alleviated what little severe hunger existed. Michael Harrington,
the self-proclaimed socialist whose book The Other America did more than
anything else to make poverty a public issue again, wrote in 1962, “To be sure,
the Other America is not impoverished in the same sense as those poor nations
where millions cling to hunger as a defense against starvation. This country
has escaped such extremes.” Harrington’s book openly sought to inflame public
opinion, but even he would not contend that America’s poor were hungry.
From 1963 to 1966 the New York Times did not run a single article on hunger
in America. President Johnson sought to raise his sagging political fortunes in
1966 by declaring a war on hunger, but he was concerned solely with foreign
hunger, and his campaign appeared to be largely intended both to justify dumping
our agricultural surpluses on the world market and to distract attention from
Vietnam. In a March 1967 Look magazine article, Senator George McGovern
declared, “We are losing the race against hunger,” but the article dealt with
world hunger and did not even mention hunger in America.
Then, in April 1967, Senator Robert Kennedy and the Senate Subcommittee on
Employment, Manpower, and Poverty held hearings on the War on Poverty in
Mississippi. At the time, 20 percent of Mississippians were already receiving
surplus commodities or food stamps. Kennedy found examples of acute poverty and
malnutrition. The Field Foundation, a nonprofit organization concerned with
poverty and race relations, quickly sent a team of physicians to examine 600
children in the Mississippi Delta, and they found sufficient suffering to
justify a wholesale expansion in government aid.
Now it happens that in 1967 there probably were many hungry people in the
Mississippi Delta — largely because of the federal government. Most blacks
there worked on cotton plantations. Wages were low, but so was the cost of
living. But in 1966 agricultural labor fell under the benevolent protection of
the minimum wage, which made it more attractive for many planters to harvest
their crops mechanically. The USDA estimated that the expansion of the minimum
wage left 40,000 to 60,000 people in the Delta with little or no cash income.
n5 To ice the cake, the USDA sharply increased cotton set-aside payments, thus
idling once-busy fields. Field Foundation physicians found many families with
zero income who could not afford to pay $2 per person to get $12 worth of food
stamps. Congress first wrecked the local labor economy and then was shocked
that men without jobs had trouble feeding their families.
n5 Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Hunger and Malnutrition in
America, 1967, p. 131.
The hunger issue was heating up, but it needed more credibility to play in
Peoria. The Citizens Crusade against Poverty sponsored the Citizens Board of
Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States. The chairman of the
crusade was Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers. The board rounded
up a handful of doctors, held hearings in Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, and
Kentucky, and issued a report in April 1968 entitled Hunger U.S.A. The report
was largely anecdotal, including a picture of a scrawny dog with the caption,
“Where you see a starving dog such as this one, you’ll find hungry people.” The
report concluded with a shot-in-the-dark estimate that there were “10 million or
more” Americans who could not afford adequate diets. The report offered few
facts or statistics to back up its estimate. It listed 256 “hunger counties” in
the United States, chosen solely on the basis of statistical data on infant
mortality rates and the number of poor on the dole and food assistance
A Way of Life
The Citizens Board report was the basis of a CBS documentary in May 1968,
which found a few people who said they were going hungry because government
would not feed them and concluded by denouncing our callous society. Dr.
Raymond Wheeler of the Citizens Board announced, “Slow starvation has become
part of the Southern way of life.” Together, the board report and the CBS
documentary made hunger a national issue.
More than any other single document, the board report was responsible for the
food assistance explosion. It is surprising that the report was so respected.
It used infant mortality figures from 1951 to 1960 even though statistics for
1965 were available. It contrasted the number of poor in 1960 with the number
getting food assistance in 1967 even though the number of poor had declined by
12 million in the interim. n6 In 1968 House hearings Dr. Leslie Dunbar,
cochairman of the board, said that only about half of the “hunger counties” had
food assistance programs; in fact 194 of 256 did. Under questioning, board
physicians admitted that their estimates were hypothetical and defended numerous
inaccuracies and mistakes by saying that the report was a rush job and that the
important thing was for Congress to act immediately. Much of the suffering
the board attributed to malnutrition due to hunger was actually due to
n6 Census Bureau figures.
Nationwide, many localities were amazed to find themselves designated hunger
counties. The Milwaukee Journal on May 25, 1968, after investigating reports
that Sawyer County, Wisconsin, was a hunger county, concluded, “In talks with a
variety of residents, no one could be found who believes this to be true.” The
chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Robert Poage, wrote to health
officers in each of the 256 so-called hunger counties, and almost all responded
by reporting little or no known hunger or malnutrition due to poverty. Even
under the guidance of Secretary Orville Freeman, a New Deal liberal, the USDA in
1967 contended that only 6.7 million of the poor — not 10 million, as estimated
by the Citizens Board — had bad diets or would have had bad diets in the
absence of food programs.
The board’s reasoning was epitomized by a statement by Dr. Dunbar. After
observing that only 18 percent of the nation’s 30 million poor were getting
federal food handouts, Dr. Dunbar concluded, “We cannot assume that any of the
remaining poor — those on neither program [food stamps or commodity
distribution] — are getting food.” n7 This little gem of logic became the
guiding light for food assistance for the next decade.
n7 House Education and Labor Committee, Malnutrition and Federal Food Service
Programs, 1968, p. 1132.
But what was the dietary status of the poor in the mid-sixties? In February
1968 the USDA released results of its 1965 dietary survey, showing that 64
percent of the poor had good or adequate diets. The number of poor with bad
diets increased from 25 percent in 1955 to 36 percent in 1965 despite sharp
increases in public assistance enrollments. The two nutrients in which the poor
were the most deficient were vitamin C, supplied by fresh fruits and vegetables,
and calcium, supplied by milk. The New York Times reported on March 27, 1968,
that the “downturn in nutritional value was attributable largely to a national
turning away from milk and milk products, fruits and vegetables.”
And why should that have occurred? USDA marketing orders kept the price of
fruits and vegetables high, and price supports helped inflate the cost of milk.
In fact, the same year that the dietary survey showed that 36 percent of the
poor had calcium deficiencies, the USDA effectively ended the sale of
reconstituted milk. Dairies had previously mixed milk powder, butterfat, and
water to produce a drink that tasted like milk but cost 20 percent less because
of savings in transport costs. But the USDA decreed that reconstituted milk
could not be sold for less than the price of whole fluid milk, a regulation
intended solely to protect dairy farmers’ income and help reelect Wisconsin
So, instead of modifying policies that artificially increased the price of
nutritious foods, the government accelerated its across-the-board feeding
approach. On May 6, 1969, President Richard Nixon declared, “That hunger and
malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and
intolerable . . . The moment is at hand to put an end to hunger in America
itself for all time.” The programs that had remained manageable under the
Johnson administration — food stamps, school lunch subsidies, and others —
went into orbit during the Nixon years. President Nixon sponsored a White House
conference on food and nutrition, which urged the president to declare a
national emergency and give food stamps to anyone who said he needed them. In
1970 and 1971 food stamp eligibility was expanded; in 1973 legislation was
passed mandating that every jurisdiction in the United States offer food stamps
by June 1974.
Even though food stamp enrollment quadrupled between 1968 and 1971, Congress
mandated an outreach program for states to recruit people for food stamps. A
USDA magazine reported that food stamp workers could often overcome people’s
pride by saying, “This is for your children’ . . . the problem is not with
welfare recipients but with low-income workers: It is this group which recoils
when anything even remotely resembling welfare is suggested.” By early 1972 the
magazine could announce, “With careful explanations . . . coupled with intensive
outreach efforts, resistance from the ‘too prouds’ is bending. More and more
are coming to the conclusion that taking needed assistance does not mean
sacrificing dignity.” n8 But according to USDA surveys, most of the poor did not
need federal aid to have an adequate diet.
n8 USDA, Food and Nutrition, February 1972.
In March 1972 President Nixon announced Project FIND to locate and recruit 3
million elderly poor for food assistance. Despite mass mailing of information
to almost 30 million retirees, and despite home visits and telephone campaigns
by 36,000 Red Cross volunteers, only 190,000 elderly signed up. The GAO found
that in most counties surveyed, recruiting efforts enticed fewer than 3 percent
of the elderly poor onto the food dole. n9 Apparently, many felt that despite
having been labeled poor by some bureaucrat, they could feel themselves.
n9 GAO, Effectiveness of Project FIND, 1974, p. 12.
In 1973 the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Hunger Needs, chaired by
George McGovern, released Hunger 1973, a report intended as “a profile of the
half-full, half-empty plate which the federal food programs represent to the
nation’s poor . . . after reaching the halfway mark . . .” The report observed,
“Whether the real poverty count is 25, 26, or even 30 million persons, the fact
that only 15 million of the poor participate in any food assistance program . .
. indicates that the hunger gap is far from closed either for the country or the
individuals concerned.” The New Republic editorialized, “. . . almost half (48%)
of the poor still do not receive adequate food . . . 12.7 million people who
ought to be getting either food stamps or commodities have not been.” n10 The
Senate Select Committee published a list of “failure to feed” counties in which
fewer than a third of the poor were on food doles. This sufficed for evidence
of the committee’s claims of widespread hunger.
n10 New Republic, May 26, 1973. The magazine editorialized on October 31,
1971, that “at least 11 million are going hungry” because eligible poor were not
on the food dole.
In five years the definition of hunger changed from insufficient food to low
income and no federal food handout. Even though the USDA reported that almost
two thirds of the poor did not have bad diets, congressmen insisted that any
poor person not being fed by the government must be hungry and malnourished.
A radical change occurred in the concept of the poor. No longer people who
occasionally needed a helping hand, they became a social class by definition
incapable of feeding itself. The fixation on food program enrollments is even
more surprising, considering that many of the poor not enrolled were receiving
some other kind of public assistance intended to help cover food costs, such as
Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
In 1974 the Senate Select Committee held a conference to rescue the hunger
issue from oblivion. Conference participants agreed that despite a fourfold
increase in federal food aid since 1968, “we have moved backwards in our
struggle to end hunger, poverty, and malnutrition.” The New York Times gave the
conference a front-page headline: “U.S. Needy Found Poorer, Hungrier than Four
Years Ago.” n11 Even though food stamp enrollment had zoomed from 3 million to
16 million and the number of poor was roughly the same, things had somehow
worsened. As usual, the evidence was anecdotal, with no nationwide survey to
back up claims.
n11 New York Times, June 20, 1974, p. 1.
In 1974 the Food Research and Action Center, a federally funded lobby,
successfully sued USDA to require the agency to increase its food stamp outreach
efforts. The USDA suggested sending food stamp workers to unemployment
offices to distribute leaflets, and in Pennsylvania food stamp aides went to
supermarkets to hustle shoppers. By 1976 twelve states had conducted
door-to-door recruiting campaigns, and seventeen had conducted telephone
campaigns. Door-to-door food stamp advertising became a favorite project for
Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) workers.
In Wisconsin 2,000 copies of the Food Stamp Nursery Rhyme Coloring Book were
distributed. In Kentucky a traveling puppet show told folks how and why to sign
up for benefits. The USDA enlisted Dustin Hoffman, Joyce Brothers, Count Basie,
and other notables to do promotional radio spots for food stamps and the
national school lunch program.
A typical 1975 USDA brochure announced, “You are in good company. Millions
of Americans use food stamps.” A leaflet distributed in Maryland and paid for by
the federal government showed a gaunt face on the cover with the question, “Die
you know some people would rather STARVE than seek HELP . . .” On the inside,
the brochure said, “PRIDE NEVER FILLS EMPTY STOMACHS . . . Are you one of
thousands of Maryland residents who . . . have too much pride to consider
applying for help? Then you need to know more about the Food Stamp program.
Food Stamps should NOT be confused with CHARITY! In fact, food stamps are
designed to help you help yourself.”
The Community Services Administration funded scores of local and national
food stamp advocate organizations to increase enrollment in food programs. The
Office of Economic Opportunity called in 1971 for community action agencies to
“prick the public conscience” over the need for more food handouts, declaring,
“. . . food stamps are not used as often as they ought to be, particularly by
the intermediate income families among the poor.” n12 Total funding for food
advocacy organizations probably exceeded $100 million in the 1970s.
n12 Office of Economic Opportunity, The Food Stamp Program and How It Works,
1971, pp. 18, 41.
In 1975, when food stamp enrollment neared 20 million, public outcries over
food stamp recipients who drove Cadillacs and grilled steaks broke the political
sound barrier. A full-page ad in Parade magazine offered a booklet telling how
people earning $16,000 a year could qualify for food stamps. The General
Accounting Office reported in 1975 that 18 percent of all food stamp benefits
were fraudulent or excessive. n13 The Joint Economic Committee estimated that up
to 73 million Americans were eligible, and a USDA assistant secretary said that
under current rules, participation could rise to 110 million. The Ford
administration tried to reduce benefits sharply for half the recipients, but
n13 GAO, Observations on the Food Stamp Program, 1975, p. iii.
In 1977 the purchase requirement for food stamps was abolished, and the
program became a straight handout. Congressional supporters did this explicitly
to increase enrollment by 3 million; the Congressional Budget Office estimated
that the change would add up to $2.7 billion a year to food stamp costs. In
1977 the head of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service declared,
I’m aware that there is a welfare stigma for people who use food stamps, but
it’s ridiculous . . . It is, in fact, far more desirable that people meet their
nutrition needs with food stamps than that they drive their cars over federally
financed roads. n14
In 1979 USDA Assistant Secretary Carol Tucker Foreman complained, “There are
areas of the country and particular age groups in which participation levels are
outrageously low.” n15 The USDA continued trying to round up and enlist anyone
who chanced to fall under eligibility guidelines. Also in 1979, Congress
expanded enrollment by broadening eligibility and allowing additional
deductions for medical and shelter expenses.
n14 USDA, Food and Nutrition, August 1977, p. 3.
n15 USDA, Food and Nutrition, April 1979, p. 4.
Between 1977-78 and 1979-80, the poor suffered another significant reduction
in their calcium intakes — by an average of nearly a cup of milk per week.
Calcium was already the most widely deficient untrient among the poor in 1977,
but that did not deter Congress from increasing the dairy support price from 75
to 80 percent of parity in 1977, nor did it deter President Carter from further
increasing the support price on the eve of the 1980 election. Almost 40 percent
of the poor do not get sufficient calcium in their diets.
Under pressure from the Reagan administration, Congress in 1981 and 1982
sought to reduce food stamp expenditures, tighten eligibility, and cut fraud.
But the food stamp program will cost $1.6 billion more in fiscal year 1983 than
in fiscal year 1981. Enrollment has surged from 20.6 million to 22 million, and
the average monthly benefit has increased from $39.49 to $42.67. Food
assistance spending has increased 34 percent since 1980 despite President
Reagan’s promises to cut back welfare spending.
We now have thirteen food assistance programs, including ten for children.
* The Summer Feeding Program, begun in 1967, now feeds 3 million youngsters
each summer. There are no income eligibility limits for this program: As long
as a child lives in or visits a low-income neighborhood with a feeding site, he
can have a free lunch. In 1977 the GAO reported that since centers were
reimbursed by the meal, some were serving the same children five times a day.
Nationwide, fraud and abuse were rampant: Contracttors were collecting for
nonexistent meals, adults were eating meals designated for children, and
kickbacks were enriching the sponsoring organizations. n16
* The Child Care Food Program, begun in 1968, subsidizes food in day-care and
other child-care centers. In 1978 Congress removed all income eligibility
standards, and the program’s cost quadrupled in the following four years. The
GAO recently estimated that more than 70 percent of participants now come from
families with incomes above 185 percent of the poverty line. The GAO also found
that meals served at 62 percent of participant centers failed to meet USDA
nutritional standards, and 20 percent of centers had unhealthy conditions,
including vermin. n17
* The Supplemental Feeding Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
provides food coupons for specific dairy, cereal, and infant formula items for
pregnant mothers and children under 5 who are judged to be at “nutritional
risk.” The GAO reports that according to one survey of physicians, only 29
percent of WIC participants showed noticeable nutritional improvement from WIC
foods, and 53 percent showed either no deficiency or no benefit. n18 The third
most prevalent nutritional deficiency justifying free WIC food is obesity.
Roughly 80 percent of WIC participants are already on food stamps. n19 The
Commodity Supplemental Food Program serves the same clientele as WIC but
provides food instead of coupons; in Washington, D.C., only about half the
enrollees bother to pick up the free food. n20
* The Congregate Feeding for the Elderly, begun in 1966, provides free meals
five times a week for citizens over 60, regardless of income, and for their
mates, regardless of age. Along with Meals on Wheels, it fed 3 million elderly
* The School Breakfast Program serves breakfast to an average of 3 million
children each school day. Congress thought that low-income families could not
afford to feed their youngsters breakfast, even though 84 percent of
participants come from families already eligible for food stamps. The federal
government also pays 14 cents per breakfast for middle-class students who eat
* The National School Lunch Program serves 23 million children a day — 9.9
million for free, 7 million at reduced prices, and 6 million who “pay” but still
eat federally subsidized lunches. The federal subsidy per “paid” lunch amounted
to $65 per middle-class child (from a family earning 185 percent of the poverty
level) in fiscal 1981; the Reagan administration has since reduced the subsidy.
George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, and other liberals pushed hard in the early
1970s for a universal free lunch program, and in 1977 Congress authorized
special subsidies to schools that provided free lunches for all children,
regardless of income.
n16 GAO, The Summer Feeding Program — How to Feed the Children and Stop
Program Abuses, 1977, p. i.
n17 GAO, Child Care Food Program: Better Management Will Yield Better
Nutrition and Fiscal Integrity, 1979, p. ii.
n18 GAO, Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children — How
Can It Work Better? 1979, p. 38.
n19 USDA estimates that 975,000 food stamp households also receive WIC; the
average WIC household has two members; thus, roughly 1.95 million of the 2.4
million WIC recipients also receive food stamps.
n20 Washington Post, July 12, 1982, p. B1.
For fifteen years politicians have insisted that the main purpose of food
programs is to fight hunger, and for fifteen years the programs’ main effect has
been to raise the incomes of tens of millions without appreciably affecting
their nutrition. Liberals and the media have perpetrated a hunger hoax to
justify sharply increasing the income of the welfare class.
Two thirds of the 8 million new food stamp recipients between 1968 and 1972
were public assistance recipients who were automatically added to the rolls,
thanks to vigorous federal and local recruiting. Until 1977 public assistance
recipients were automatically entitled to food stamps, regardless of their
income. Food stamps were extended to public assistance recipients even though
public assistance was already supposed to be covering or helping cover food
costs. Charles Hobbs, Governor Reagan’s welfare director, estimated, “In 1976
the welfare family of four received, on average, cash and in-kind benefits
totalling $14,960 — an amount slightly higher than the median family income in
that year.” n21
n21 Harper’s, February 1980, pp. 22, 24.
Food stamps are also generally available to the unemployed, whether they quit
work or were discharged. This is because the program calculates eligibility
solely on present income: If a person quits a $50,000-a-year job and has few
assets, he is eligible to receive food stamps the following month. The GAO
estimated that 70 percent of food stamp errors stemmed from recipients’
misreporting their incomes, and the USDA inspector general’s office found that
30 percent of the recipients of free and reduced-price lunches were ineligible.
A 1983 GAO report found that food stamp fraud and abuse averaged a billion
dollars a year. The report noted, “Officials in the states GAO visited said
they had not tried to identify more overissuance cases because there have been
no requirements and few financial incentives.” n22 In 1980 and 1981, when
roughly $2 billion in stamps was overissued through error and fraud, state
governments managed to recover only $20 million — just 1 percent of the loss.
n23 In Los Angeles and New York City, people who finagled excess benefits
received a single letter telling them to pay money back; there was no followup.
In Washington, D.C., where 15 percent of the population received food stamps
and, according to the GAO, abuse was widespread, not a single person was
prosecuted for fraud between 1978 and 1980. The GAO also reported that the
federally funded Food Research and Action Committee “advised food stamp
recipients that they did not have to make restitution for receiving too many
benefits.” n24 (FRAC received $150,000 from the federally funded Legal Services
Corporation in 1982 and has been given $50,000 so far this year, money it is
using to help people sue the USDA and bring class-action suits to block proposed
cutbacks in nutrition spending.) In testimony before the Joint Economic
Committee in May 1983, Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman
said, “In 1981, fully 42 percent of all dollars expended on low-income benefits
went to households which, when that aid was included, had incomes above 150
percent of the poverty level.”
n22 GAO, Need for Greater Efforts to Recover Costs of Food Stamps Obtained
through Error or Fraud, 1983, p. ii.
n23 Ibid., p. 29.
n24 Ibid., p. i.
Until 1981, strikers were allowed to get food stamps immediately after going
on strike. In some places, such as the Illinois coal fields, special food
stamp offices were set up to handle the rush after a major walkout. Students
easily qualified for food stamps until 1980; a GAO study in 1975 found that 13
percent of the students at one university were on the dole. n25
n25 GAO, Student Participation in the Food Stamp Program at Six Selected
Universities, 1976, p. i.
Many farmers complain that because of food stamps it is difficult to find
people willing to help harvest crops. The San Juan Journal editorialized on
August 22, 1975, that the food stamp program “is cultivating, encouraging, and
abetting a generation of loafers in Puerto Rico.” (Almost 60 percent of the
island’s residents were receiving food stamps.) Treasury Secretary William Simon
in congressional testimony cited the views of the director of the Puerto Rico
Manufacturers Association and the president of the Association of General
Contractors, “who say some industries are in danger of shutting down operations
because they cannot find workers. This is occurring in spite of the fact that
unemployment on the island is 20 percent.” n26 One 1975 study found that
“recipients of food stamps with some wage income choose to work fewer hours when
food stamps are available. The decrease in income from work is roughly equal to
the subsidy so that the two cancel out and there is no net gain in income.” n27
n26 Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, Food Stamps:
Statement of William Simon, 1975, p. 21.
n27 Food Stamps and Nutrition, by Kenneth Clarkson (American Enterprise
Institute, 1975), p. 4.
The farcical work registration requirements are another example of how income
redistribution masquerades as food stamps. The GAO reported in 1978 that of 620
able-bodied adult food stamp recipients required to register for work, only
three actually got jobs. n28 Until 1981 the only penalty for refusing to work
was suspension of benefits for thirty days. Thus someone could refuse a job and
still get benefits every other month; his or her family was entitled to receive
benefits even though the head of the household refused work. The USDA is known
for being rough on its workers; the GAO noted, “Merely showing up at the
worksite constituted compliance with the workfare obligation.” n29 Federally
funded legal service programs often sue local governments to stop food stamp
n28 GAO, Food Stamp Work Requirements — Ineffective Paperwork or Effective
Tool? 1978, p. i.
n29 GAO, Insights Gained in Workfare Demonstration Project, 1981, p. 4.
Where Does the Money Go?
Federal food programs largely replace food that people would have bought for
themselves. A Congressional Budget Office study found that a dollar’s worth of
food stamps increased a family’s food expenditure by only 57 cents; the other 43
cents simply replaced money the person would have spent on food anyway. n30 A
recent study of Supplemental Security Income recipients whose food stamp
allotments were cashed out found that each additional dollar of food stamp
payments increased food purchases by only 14 cents. n31
n30 Congressional Budget Office, Food Stamps — Income or Food
Supplementation? 1977, p. xiv.
n31 USDA, Food Stamp SS1/Elderly Cashout Demonstration Evaluation, Vol. 1,
1982, p. vii.
Despite a thirtyfold increase in federal spending for food assistance for the
poor since 1955, there has been little or no major improvement in lower-income
diets. As the table below shows, the average poor person in 1955 was already
getting adequate nutrition. The poor’s intake of essential nutrients in 1955
already exceeded the National Academy of Science’s recommended daily allowance
Average Intake in
1980 RDA 1955 1979-80
vitamin A 5,000 I.U. 8,120 I.U. 8,391 I.U.
thiamin 1.4 mg. 1.58 mg. 2.07 mg.
riboflavin 1.6 mg. 2.21 mg. 2.62 mg.
ascorbic acid 60 mg. 94 mg. 137 mg.
calcium 800 mg. 1.11 g. 1.05 g.
protein 56 g. 100 g. 101.9 g.
niacin 16 mg. 17.1 mg. —
calories 2,700 3,180 2,897
The 1980 RDA is for males aged 23 to 50. The 1979-80 survey included other
nutrients not surveyed in 1955. n32
n32 USDA, Dietary Levels of Households in the U.S., Report No. 6, Table No.
3, 1957; USDA, Food Consumption and Dietary Levels of Low-Income Households,
November 1979-March 1980, unpublished research results from the Human
Policy Review 1983 Fall
Nutrition Information Service, USDA. In 1955 there were significant differences
between $2,000-$2,999 and under-$2,000 income groups in protein (93 g.), vitamin
A value (7,000 I.U.), and ascorbic acid (81 mg.). But the poorer group was not
hungrier, as they consumed more calories than did the $2,000-$2,999 group (3,210
The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Science notes, “As
there is no way of predicting whose needs are high and whose needs are low, RDA
(except for energy) are estimated to exceed the requirements of most
individuals, and thereby insure that the needs of nearly all are met.” n33 And
the USDA 1977-78 survey of low-income household diets concluded, “Food used both
by households participating in the food stamp program and by those not
participating was sufficient, on the average, to provide the 1974 RDA for food
energy and the 11 nutrients studied.” n34
n33 National Academy of Science, Food and Nutrition Board, 1974 Recommended
Daily Allowance, 1974, p. 3.
n34 USDA, Food Consumption and Dietary Levels of Low-Income Households,
Report No. 8, 1981, p. 2.
The 1979-80 study showed a sharp drop in the number of low-income households
(both users and nonusers of food stamps) meeting the RDA for all nutrients and
food energy — from 42 percent in 1977-78 to 39 percent in 1979-80. n35 This
occurred despite a 3.6 million rise in food stamp enrollment, a 6.4 percent
increase in the real value of the average food stamp benefits, and a 60 percent
increase in federal monthly expenditures on food stamps (from $404 million to
n35 USDA, Food and Nutrient Intakes of Individuals in 1 Day, Low-Income
Households, November 1979-March 1980, Table 3.01, 1982.
Further evidence of the irrelevance of food stamps to lower-income nutrition
comes from a 1982 USDA study on food stamps and lower-income elderly:
After using regressional analysis to control for the effects of other
variables, there were no statistically significant differences between program
participants and eligible nonparticipants in the intakes of the nine nutrients
n36 USDA, Food Stamp SSI/Elderly Cashout Demonstration Evaluation, Vol. 1,
1982, p. vii.
The 1979-80 survey of lower-income household diets revealed that the average
low-income person eligible for but not using food stamps achieved the RDA for
nine of thirteen nutrients; the average food stamp user met the RDA only for
eight. Of those nutrients in which both groups were deficient, there was a
significant difference between users and nonusers on only one — vitamin B
(food stamp users consumed 79 percent of the RDA, and nonusers 72 percent;
nutritionists say that any diet with 70 percent of the RDA is adequate though
not ideal). Nonusers had higher average intakes than food stamp users for three
nutrients for which one or both groups fell short of the RDA (calcium, iron, and
n37 USDA, Food Nutrient Intakes of Individuals in 1 Day, Low-Income
Households, November 1979-March 1980, 1982.
If federal food assistance was intended to fight hunger, then it was an
abject failure, since the poor consume fewer calories now than in 1955. The
decline in calorie consumption among the poor stems largely from decreased fat
intake and is mainly a result of personal choice. If hunger was widespread
among the poor today, they would buy more calorie-dense, fatty foods, and
fewer fruits and vegetables. Scattered cases of individual hunger may exist,
but it makes no sense to make 40 million people eligible for food stamps because
of half a dozen families shown on the evening news.
If food stamps were necessary for the majority of the poor to feed
themselves, then the poor who do not use food stamps would not eat as well as
those who do. In fact, a 1967 USDA study showed little difference in the
nutritional status of food stamp users and nonusers of similar income and
background. A 1972 USDA Consumer Expenditure Diary Survey reported that food
stamp households “spent approximately four times as much for nonalcoholic
beverages (excluding fresh whole milk) than did non-food stamp households” —
largely for soft drinks. Kenneth Clarkson observed in his 1975 book, Food
Stamps and Nutrition, that food stamp recipients frequently buy more sweets and
convenience or packaged foods instead of fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy
products. The 1977-78 USDA survey of low-income household diets found that food
stamp participants consumed more luncheon meats, sausages, soft drinks, cereals,
and fruit punches than nonparticipants; low-income nonusers are more eggs,
tomatoes, dark-green vegetables, and grain mixtures. n38
The National School Lunch Program receives $3 billion a year in federal money
to provide one third of the recommended daily allowance for schoolchildren. But
the GAO has repeatedly pointed out that the government’s lunches do not even
meet the government’s standards. In 1977 the GAO noted, “The absence of any
indication that the program is having a benefit upon the health of either needy
or nonneedy children raises questions about the nutritional value of the lunch.”
n39 In 1978 the GAO reported that lab tests found that a random sample of school
lunches “were significantly short in as many as 8 of the 13 nutrients tested. .
. Separate tests in New York showed that at least 40% of the lunches did not
meet USDA requirements as to quantities served.” n40 In a 1981 followup, the GAO
concluded, “. . . all types of lunches fell short of providing the recommended
levels of as many as 7 of the 14 nutrients tested, some to a serious extent.”
n39 GAO, The National School Lunch Program — Is It Working? 1977, p. iii.
n40 GAO, How Good Are School Lunches? 1978, p. i.
n41 GAO, Efforts to Improve the School Lunch Program — Are They Paying Off?
1981, p. i.
Nor has the school breakfast program proved its salt. The American Journal
of Public Health reported in 1978 that only two studies of the school breakfast
program had reported beneficial effects; five others had found no difference.
n42 American Journal of Public Health, May 1978, p. 481.
The GAO’s conclusion on WIC was that “reliable assessments of its overall
results and benefits have not been made.” n43 Dr. George Graham of Johns Hopkins
University told the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee in
1982 that “. . . most of the apparent benefits of the WIC program are the result
of its usefulness in increasing utilization of prenatal and pediatric health
services by some groups who habitually do not make regular use of them.” n44
Since families of four with incomes up to $18,318 are eligible, most
participants either get food stamps already or can afford to feed themselves.
And more than 81 percent of recipients share WIC food with the family, thus
minimizing nutritional effect on the pregnant woman and young child.
n43 GAO, Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children — How
Can It Work Better? 1979, p. ii.
n44 Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, Reauthorization
of the Food Stamp Program, 1982, p. 238.
While government is doling out free food worth billions, federal efforts at
nutritional education have been a singular failure. The USDA spent millions of
dollars a year on nutrition education between 1955 and 1965, when American diets
sharply deteriorated. The GAO reported that conflicting federal regulations on
food labeling contribute to consumer confusion on healthy eating habits and that
“federal efforts to inform the public [about nutrition] are sometimes unduly
complex, duplicative, and contradictory.” n45 Instead of teaching people how to
get their money’s worth out of their food dollars, government tries to rain
perpetual subsidies upon them with the vague hope that they will eat better.
n45 GAO, Informing the Public about Food – A Strategy Is Needed for Improving
Communication, 1982, p. 6.
A recent New York Times editorial, entitled “Poorer, Hungrier,” cited a list
of statistics on infant mortality, short-statured 4-year-olds, and declining
school lunch enrollment. The editorial naturally concluded, “Given what’s
happening to the hungry in America, this administration has cause only for
n46 New York Times, April 10, 1983, p. E20.
For a decade and a half, food politics has been dictated by fear of shame —
by the dread that somewhere somehow, some journalist will find a child with a
bloated stomach and provoke another national uproar. Liberals still have close
to no understanding of how programs actually work. The Times castigated
President Reagan for wanting to trim the Child Care Food Program by over 25
percent. Yet over 70 percent of the benefits go to families with incomes above
185 percent of the poverty line. The Times says of WIC, “Nine million needy
women and children are eligible for the program” — as always, eligibility in
itself is taken as proof of need. Yet families of four with annual incomes of
$18,315 are eligible; that figure is roughly equal to the national median for
full-time, year-round workers.
The news media are repeating the same errors that they made ten and fifteen
years ago. There is still a rush to portray all lower-income people as being in
dire need and incapable of feeding themselves. Even though food stamp
enrollment has increased by 2 million since President Reagan took office,
popular accounts portray budget cuts as threatening millions with starvation.
Food policy has been shaped by waves of hysteria, by rarely verified accounts
of elderly people who eat dog food, and by politicians competing to appear
generous. Politicians have another motive besides: By raising eligibility
levels, they have helped dispose of government’s embarrassing agricultural
surpluses. Politicians have long acted as though government can feed people
better than people can feed themselves. Programs like school lunches continued
growing despite repeated proof that government meals fail to provide good
nutrition at least as often as — and for the nonpoor, more often than —
The Congressional Budget Office, which is staffed largely by liberal
Democrats, conceded in 1980:
Despite some limited cases of severe malnutrition found by the Senate
Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty in the Mississippi Delta in
1967, statements that severe malnutrition exists on a national scale have never
been documented, even during the early years of the “War on Poverty” programs.
“Ten million” was the rallying cry of the late sixties; but since almost
twice as many poor people had good or adequate diets as had bad diets in 1965,
it is likely that at least half of the 10 million poor with bad diets ate badly
because of habit rather than sheer need. And of those, several million were
probably already receiving food stamps and surplus commodities. Thus,
although in 1968 there may have been 2 million or 3 million people with poor
diets who were not receiving federal food assistance, Congress responded by
increasing food stamp enrollment by 20 million and increasing nutrition spending
twentyfold. Yet malnutrition still exists, and it will exist as long as eating
is a matter of individual choice. In diet, as in everything else, some people
will always make bad decisions. We cannot end malnutrition without ending
people’s control over their own diets.
n47 Congressional Budget Office, Feeding the Children — Federal Nutrition
Policies in the 1980s, 1980, p. 15.
Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Nick Kotz wrote in 1969 that “hunger
provided a meaningful new metaphor for the issue of poverty in affluent America
. . .” n48 Liberals realized in the late 1960s that handouts had lost their
appeal to the majority; a new cover was needed for increasing redistribution.
Thus the myth of mass hunger was born — largely as a tactical move to evade the
backlash against the Great Society. Probably many of the people clamoring for
massive increases in the late 1960s sincerely believed that more free food was
really needed. But many others — especially some of the leaders — were
probably aware of the charade.
n48 Nick Kotz, Let Them Eat Promises, 1969, p. 147.
Proof that redistribution alone was the main motivation is that the programs
continued expanding long after they had reached the levels that proponents
originally said would end hunger in America. Office of Economic Opportunity
Director Sargent Shriver said in 1967, when the federal government spent roughly
$700 million on food assistance, that another billion dollars would be
sufficient to end the problem. Another billion dollars was appropriated, and
then another, and still another — and yet the more money spent, the hungrier
the poor supposedly became. Eventually, only government provision of a full
diet for all citizens with low incomes was seen as satisfactory.
The issue of mass hunger has emotionalized and muddled American politics for
the past sixteen years. It is easy to understand why politicians and much of
the media cling to the myth: If it were widely recognized that most of the poor
are not severely deprived and not tottering on the edge of starvation and not
utterly helpless, the rationale for a vast array of welfare programs would
disappear. Politicians made a mockery of the definition of need and denigrated
the poor in order to expand the pork barrel. We now have a hodgepodge of
ineffective food programs because congressmen believe they can win votes by
supporting subsidies for people who can feed themselves.
If government is resolved to take care of everyone, it would make far more
sense to fight malnutrition than hunger. Hunger can usually be rectified by
individual effort, but malnutrition is more often the result of ignorance or
sheer poverty. The Congressional Budget Office noted in 1980 that “specific
nutrients could be added to children’s diets through targeted fortification
schemes. Vitamin fortification could provide for 100% of a child’s RDA for less
than $3 a year in ingredient costs.” n49 In 1975 Stanley Lebergott wrote in
Wealth and Want, “Fifty dollars worth of milk plus vitamin pills annually would
bring every poor family up to the U.S. nutrition average.” n50 Indeed, passing
out vitamin pills to the poor would be far cheaper and more effective
nutritionally than current programs and would not destroy anyone’s incentive to
provide for himself.
n49 CBO, Feeding the Children, pp. xx — xxiii.
n50 Stanley Lebergott, Wealth and Want, p. 82.
Charles Schultze, President Carter’s chief economic adviser, estimated in
1971 that federal agricultural policies add 15 percent to the retail cost of
food. Journalist Nick Kotz observed in his 1969 book, Let Them Eat Promises,
that the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA prohibit domestic marketing
of many superenriched food products being marketed by American corporations in
Third World countries. The FDA prohibits manufacturers from adding nutrients to
candy and soft drinks — or to any other food that in its opinion lacks
“nutritional logic” to justify the enrichment. n51
n51 Code of Federal Regulations, @ 104.20.
The working and elderly poor who are too proud to go on the dole are caught
in a crossfire as social workers beg them to abandon their independence while
politicians destroy the purchasing power of their food dollar. It is farcical
to hear politicians sobbing over the poor’s plight while they try to raise food
prices by hook or by crook or by PIK. George McGovern, the leading advocate for
increased food assistance during the 1970s, pushed high price supports for
almost all commodities. Though he was generous to the poor who surrendered
their independence and went on the dole, he showed no sympathy for low-income
families who tried to feed themselves.
There are probably still a handful of hungry people in the United States
despite the federal government’s efforts to foist food on them. But the answer
is not to increase food assistance — if that would abolish hunger, then hunger
would have become extinct long ago. Many of the stories in the press about
hungry kids deal with families who get food stamps or other food aid but fail to
budget properly. When individual irresponsibility or imprudence is the cause of
hunger, it makes more sense to provide soup kitchens rather than a month’s worth
of food stamps. National policy should not turn on the most sensational
examples the evening news team can find.
The great myth underlying the growth of food assistance is that nutrition is
largely dependent on income. But in 1955 — when half the poor lived in rural,
non-metropolitan areas — the Household Food Consumption Survey found, “In farm
diets, most nutrients other than ascorbic acid were little affected by income.”
n52 The CBO concluded in 1977, “It still remains unclear if increased food
purchases . . . means improved nutritional status.” n53 The great majority of
bad diets, now as in 1955, are due to ignorance and bad habit, not low income.
n52 USDA, Dietary Levels of Households in the U.S., 1957, p. 2.
n53 Quoted in Food Stamps and Commodity Distribution Amendments of 1981,
Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, p. 180.
The astounding thing about the growth of food aid is that for almost every
targeted group, a federal program already existed to help the poor feed
themselves. Most of the surge in the food stamp program in the late sixties
and early seventies came from automatically enrolling the recipients of public
assistance — a program that was supposedly helping the poor buy food.
Throughout the 1970s, Congress strove to increase food stamp enrollment among
the elderly, whose increased Social Security benefits were supposedly justified
by their need for a decent standard of living. (And in 1974, Supplemental
Security Income payments were added to give a decent income to any elderly who
missed the Social Security bonanza.) Food stamp advocates insist that food
stamps are vital for the unemployed — for whom unemployment compensation
benefits were created in 1935, specifically to prevent them from going hungry.
Either food stamps are unnecessary for the vast majority of recipients, or every
other major federal assistance program is a failure.
The other food assistance programs — from WIC to school lunches to school
breakfast to child care — feed people who either are already eligible for food
stamps or do not need a handout to feed themselves. We can be humanitarian
without paying for eight meals a day for poor people. If Congress cannot summon
the courage to tighten the food stamp program, it should at least end duplicate
benefits and abolish food handouts for anyone above the poverty line. Taxpayers
should not be coerced to feed those who can feed themselves.
Hunger has become an issue to conjure with — a political magic wand to
mesmerize the public’s critical faculties. Despite a thirtyfold increase in
food aid for the poor since 1955, there has been little or no improvement in
their diets. Food programs have wasted billions, lured millions onto the dole,
and perpetrated the myth that a low income is automatically debilitating.
Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views
of The Heritage Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any
bill before Congress.
GRAPHIC: Picture, In the thirties, when crop failurs, the Depression, and
strikes created hunger, the government distributed surplus commodities. The
hungry stood in line to be fed. But in the seventies, the government had to
proselytize, sending recruiters out to sign up any poor person, hungry or not,
for food stamps.