My 1983 “Feeding Everybody” / Food Stamp Failure article

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.


Bad Precedent

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.


Swallowing Pride

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.


Grilled Steaks

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

Congress resisted.

n13 GAO, Observations on the Food Stamp Program, 1975, p. iii.


Ridiculous Stigmas

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.

Among them:

* 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

in 1982.

* 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

at school.

* 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.


Hunger Hoax

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

work programs.

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

for 1980.


Average Intake in

Lower-Income Diets

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

vs. 3,180).

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

$642 million).

n35 USDA, Food and Nutrient Intakes of Individuals in 1 Day, Low-Income

Households, November 1979-March 1980, Table 3.01, 1982.


Nutritionally Adequate

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

studied. n36

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[6]

(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

magnesium). n37

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

n38 Ibid.

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

shame.” n46

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 —

private meals.

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.


Debilitating Dependence

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.


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