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How Food Stamps Subverted Democracy, Part 1

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The federal government is now feeding more than 100 million Americans. The vast increase in dependency fundamentally changes the relationship of Washington to the citizenry. The more Americans rely on handouts, the more difficult it becomes to roll back politicians’ power over those who do not.

There was no good reason for the vast expansion of dependency. The history of the federal food-aid boom is a story of political conniving, bureaucratic bungles, and media collusion. Forty years ago, when the “hunger revolution” in American politics began, average people would have scoffed at the notion that the government must intervene to supply so many meals. But in the subsequent decades, politicians captured new prerogatives to take over far more lives.

In 1937, Franklin Roosevelt declared that one-third of the nation was “ill-nourished.” He had no specific data to support that assertion, but it was a key to a punchline in his second inaugural address that also tagged one-third of the nation “ill-clad” and “ill-housed.” Most commentators at the time ignored the fact that Roosevelt’s agricultural policies — by paying farmers to slaughter pigs and to leave land idle — had sharply inflated food prices.

A 1955 USDA dietary survey found that only 25 percent of America’s roughly 43 million poor people had bad diets — i.e., diets with too few calories and 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 of them were on public assistance. There was not a vast gap in dietary quality between the poor and nonpoor. The federal government ran a commodity-distribution program that allowed needy people to receive boxes of relatively nutritious food. Because government cheese and flour could not function as a second currency (unlike food stamps), the demand was limited.

Hunger was a nonissue for most of the 1960s. From 1963 to 1966 the New York Times did not run a single article on hunger in America. Lyndon Johnson sought to raise his sagging political fortunes in 1966 by declaring a war on hunger, but he was concerned solely with foreign hunger. In 1967, Office of Economic Opportunity Director Sargent Shriver, one of the most outspoken liberals in the Johnson administration, declared, at a time when the federal government was spending roughly $700 million on food assistance, that spending another billion dollars would be sufficient to end the domestic hunger problem.

Hunger in America

The modern-era hunger hype began in 1967 when Sen. Robert Kennedy visited the Mississippi Delta just after federal policies threw tens of thousands of cotton pickers out of work. Kennedy and other politicians claimed that the Delta’s misery was symptomatic of a national hunger epidemic. They conveniently ignored the federal role in sparking the suffering they bemoaned. The left-leaning Citizens’ Crusade against Poverty jumped on the bandwagon, sponsoring the Citizens’ Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States. The board held hearings in a few Southern states and issued a scathing 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.

Dr. Raymond Wheeler of the Citizens’ Board announced, “Slow starvation has become part of the Southern way of life.” The board report propelled the issue even though its proclamation of 256 “hunger counties” in the United States relied on profoundly flawed statistical juggling. It used 1950s infant-mortality figures 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. Board physicians later admitted that their estimates were hypothetical and defended numerous 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 biological parasites.

Nationwide, many localities were amazed to find themselves designated as hunger counties. The Milwaukee Journal, 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 (D-Tex.), 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.

CBS relied on the Citizens’ Board report to produce a bombshell television documentary, “Hunger in America.” The show began, “Hunger is easy to recognize when it looks like this. This baby is dying of starvation. He was an American. Now he is dead.” The Federal Communications Commission investigated and found that the baby had been born prematurely after his mother had fallen the day before, and weighed only two pounds, ten ounces. The hottest item on the program and the sole example of starvation was a fraud.

Regardless, the Citizens’ Board established the standard that would guide subsequent federal food assistance. After observing that only 18 percent of the nation’s 30 million poor were getting federal food handouts, one of the Citizens’ Board doctors concluded, “We cannot assume that any of the remaining poor — those on neither program [food stamps or surplus commodity distribution] — are getting food.” But a 1967 USDA study found little difference in the nutritional status of food-stamp users and nonusers of similar income and background.

In the late 1960s, Americans were turning against Johnson’s spendthrift Great Society programs that seemed to have done little more than boost dependency and spur riots. Activists and politicians seized upon the hunger issue to create a moral imperative to expand government handouts and political control over the distribution of income. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nick Kotz wrote in 1969 that “hunger provided a meaningful new metaphor for the issue of poverty in affluent America.”

Richard Nixon seized on the hunger issue to burnish his compassionate credentials (at the same time he was bombing Vietnam and Cambodia). On May 6, 1969, he 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.” Nixon was willing to do anything to curb hunger — except reform federal farm policies that added up to 15 percent to the price of food. Low-income Americans were soon caught in a crossfire: social workers begged them to abandon their independence while politicians and inflation destroyed the purchasing power of their food dollar.

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.”

Promoting hunger

In 1973 the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Hunger Needs, chaired by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), 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…. 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 Senate Select Committee published a list of “failure to feed” counties in which fewer than a third of the poor were on food doles.

In five years, the tacit definition of hunger in America had changed from consuming insufficient food to being low-income and not receiving federal food handouts. That change also symbolized a radical change in the concept of the poor. No longer were they people who occasionally needed a helping hand; instead, they became a social class by definition incapable of feeding themselves. The fixation on food-program enrollments was also puzzling because many of the poor were receiving some other kind of public assistance intended to help cover food costs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children or unemployment compensation.

In 1974, the Senate Select Committee held a conference that proclaimed 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 hyped the conference with a front-page headline: “U.S. Needy Found Poorer, Hungrier than Four Years Ago.” 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. The Senate committee made no effort to measure actual hunger.

Federal food-stamp recruiting went into overdrive. Twelve states conducted door-to-door food-stamp recruiting campaigns and seventeen conducted telephone campaigns. Wisconsin distributed thousands of copies of a Food Stamp Nursery Rhyme Coloring Book, while Kentucky relied on a traveling puppet show to spur food- stamp enrollment. 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, “Did you know some people would rather STARVE than seek HELP? On the inside, the brochure said, “PRIDE NEVER FILLS EMPTY STOMACHS…. Food Stamps should NOT be confused with CHARITY! In fact, food stamps are designed to help you help yourself.”

The Carter administration, like the Nixon administration, unabashedly championed food stamps. In 1977, the head of the 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.”

In 1981, Ronald Reagan took office and sought to curb surging food-stamp enrollment. That issue provided the best hook for the liberal media to attack the moral credibility of his administration and Republicans across the board. In part 2, we will see how the hunger issue has been exploited in subsequent times to put a halo over Leviathan.

This article was originally posted in the December 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.