The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
January 1984
Task Force Can't Find Widespread Hunger in America
After three months of hearings and study, the 13-member Task Force on Food Assistance presented President Ronald Reagan with recommendations for alleviating the problem of hunger in the United States. Among its recommendations -- an increase in the food stamp allotment, tax incentives for corporations donating food, farmers permitting charities to take unharvested crops -- the most controversial was giving states the option of dropping out of the federal food stamp program and establishing their own programs with federal block grant money. The numbers of Americans requiring social welfare has risen due to the severe recession of 1981-1982, and there was some hope that an improving economy would alleviate some of the problem. But critics of the report insisted that the hunger problem was endemic, and far more serious than the task force had claimed.

U.S. Panel Fails to Find Widespread Hunger

A federal advisory committee Jan. 10 presented President Reagan with a series of recommendations for alleviating the problem of hunger in the U.S. Following the Jan. 9 release of a summary of the report's findings, 42 national religious and antipoverty groups Jan. 10 issued a joint statement condemning the panel's program, saying that on balance, it "would make this tragic problem worse."
After three months of study and hearings, the 13-member Task Force on Food Assistance, chaired by J. Clayburn La Force Jr., dean of the Graduate School of Management, University of California at Los Angeles, concluded that although "there is hunger in America . . . there is no evidence that widespread undernutrition is a major health problem in the U.S."
Some critics charged that at a press conference publicizing the report, La Force had backed down from the commission's findings that hunger was not a significant problem in the U.S. Robert Greenstein, former administrator of the Federal Food and Nutrition Service under President Carter, suggested that La Force's expressed commitment to tackling the problem, whatever its scope, was an attempt to counteract the "political fallout" occasioned by the release of the report and its downplaying of the hunger problem.
The most controversial of the panel's proposals was that states should have the option of participating in the food stamp program, while dropping out of other food assistance programs, or should be able to establish their own programs, for which they would receive block grants. Such a policy could eliminate uniform national eligibility criteria and uniform national benefit levels.
Among the numerous critics of the panel's report was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (, Mass.), who in November 1983 had conducted his own survey of hunger in five states. Kennedy assailed the task force plan, saying, "In effect, this commission says to the hungry: Let them eat block grants."
Other task force proposals, many of which would require congressional approval, included:
Simplifying food stamp application procedures and keeping food stamp offices open longer hours for working recipients.
Increasing the maximum food stamp allotment to 100% of the cost of the "thrifty food plan" from its current level of 99%.
Increasing the ceiling on assets for a household seeking food stamps to $2,250 from $1,500 for nonelderly households and $3,500 from $3,000 for elderly households, and allowing the elderly and disabled to convert food stamps to cash.
Issuing food stamps to people with no fixed address.
The panel also encouraged establishing tax incentives for corporations donating food and for farmers permitting charities to take unharvested crops from their fields.
The task force estimated that its program would increase federal expenses for food assistance benefits by about $500 million annually, roughly 2.6% of the $19 billion a year currently spent on such aid. Recommending that states be held financially accountable for overpayment errors over 5%, it estimated that the increased expenditure would be offset somewhat by reduced outlays to the states deriving from the penalties for overpayment errors.
 Children in Poverty Report Issued
The Children's Defense Fund, a children's advocacy organization, Jan. 3 released a study indicating that increasing numbers of children were living in poverty and that budget cuts enacted by the Reagan administration were decreasing the financial aid and medical services to which they had access.
The report concluded that in 1982, 13.1 million, or 31% more children than four years earlier, were living in poverty. It called the rise the "sharpest increase in child poverty since poverty statistics have been collected."
Using Census Bureau data, the study also determined that Medicaid, the federal-state health program for the poor, was serving 73.5% of poor children in 1982, as compared to 83.5% during the mid-1970s. In addition, the proportion of poor children receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) had fallen to 53% in 1982 from 72% in 1979.
The Defense Fund study also indicated that during the past few years low income women in the early months of pregnancy were receiving a substantially reduced amount of medical services. It found that although the national infant mortality rate had declined in recent years, death rates for non-white babies had risen in 13 states during 1981 and 1982.
The report contended that federal cuts in "bare bones health, nutrition, education, childcare and family-support programs have endangered the lives, health and futures of millions of poor children."

Vol. 96, No. 3, 23 January 1984

Hunger in America -- Just How Bad?
Most of the nation's poor people are getting enough to eat, says a White House task force, but volunteer agencies report widespread misery
Few of the nation's domestic issues are stirring as much debate this winter as hunger in America.
On January 9, a special presidential task force on the problem issued its long-awaited report. The conclusion: while hunger exists in some places, it is not rampant enough to justify big new spending programs.
That report followed remarks in December by White House Counselor Edwin Meese, who aroused a hailstorm of controversy by declaring that people choose to eat at soup kitchens because "it's easier than paying" for food.
A few days later, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), returning from a six-day tour of soup kitchens and food pantries, cited "authoritative evidence of widespread and increasing hunger in America" and criticized Meese for implying that hungry people were "freeloaders".
With so many conflicting views being voiced, just how serious is the nation's hunger problem?....To find out, U.S. News & World Report asked its bureaus to conduct their own investigations in cities, towns and rural areas around the country....Among the findings--
Despite economic recovery, the number of Americans who are receiving public or private food assistance is rising. Hardest hit are the elderly, the unemployed, immigrants and the mentally and physically impaired.
While there is virtually no evidence of outright starvation, poor nutrition is a key factor in health problems among the needy, particularly infants and pregnant women.
Income loss resulting from cuts in federal benefits is adding to the problem. Others go without meals as a result of bureaucratic obstacles in relief programs, a lack of information or inability to get to aid centers.
....While there are no authoritative figures measuring the scope of the problem, 17.3 billion dollars in federal expenditures and billions more in private funds went toward feeding the poor in fiscal 1983. Since 1980, federal spending on food stamps alone has risen by about a third -- from 9.1 billion dollars to nearly 12 billion.
....Whatever the solution, this magazine's findings show that government and volunteer agencies are under great pressure to meet the demand for emergency food.
Each day in New York City, some 5,000 people eat free meals at 75 privately run soup kitchens, and 1,000 others get groceries from 85 food pantries. This is in addition to the more than 600,000 meals the city provides daily to needy children and the elderly....
Demand for food is straining the capacity of soup kitchens and pantries in Detroit. The Cass United Methodist Church serves about 2,000 meals per week to the inner-city poor, up from 200 a week in 1981. Low supplies forced the church to turn away some 6,000 people last fall. In all, local organizations estimate there are 900,000 hungry people in the area.
Hunger problems are not confined to Northern industrial states. In Texas, 1 out of every 4 persons is classified as needing help in getting food -- and the number is rising. The total of those eligible for federal food stamps recently surpassed 4 million, according to state officials....
....In Los Angeles County, where an estimated 1.3 million people live below the poverty line, more than 638,000 were receiving food stamps at latest count, an increase of more than 10 percent from a year earlier. Statewide, food banks and emergency kitchens are experiencing a fourfold increase in requests for assistance.
....In Michigan, where unemployment stands at 11.6 percent, about 800,000 people have exhausted their state and federal jobless benefits during recent months. "For the first time, we are seeing families who have always had a breadwinner forced into a situation with nowhere to turn," says Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.
....The elderly are especially hard hit. Notes Sam Karp of the Food and Nutrition Services in Santa Cruz: "Between high rents and increased co-payments for medical care, there isn't much left for food. A Social Security check only stretches so far."
Homeless people also are seeking aid. Even in the affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C., new facilities are opening to care for "street people," some mentally or physically disabled.
Despite such efforts, nutrition efforts say many Americans are not being reached. Social workers in many cities report that the elderly poor often miss out on aid programs because they lack transportation or are too sick to travel to relief agencies.
....Many destitute illegal aliens balk at seeking help. In Watsonville, Calif., immigration authorities "cruise" the parking lot of one privately-run food-distribution center regularly, looking for undocumented workers.
....Although hunger in the U.S. may not be as severe as in some countries, experts are increasingly concerned about the effects of poor nutrition, particularly among children....
Children in some low-income families in New England have been found to be more susceptible to infectious diseases. "We're also seeing an increase in the number of children suffering from growth failure, where they are neither the right weight or height for their ages," observes Dr. Larry Brown, a professor of public health at Harvard University.
Rising infant-mortality deaths in cities such as Detroit and Chicago worry experts who see a clear connection with the hunger problem. "Low birth weight is a major cause of infant mortality, and nutritional problems are a major cause of low birth weights," says Jeffrey Taylor of the Michigan Department of Public Health.
Despite the reluctance of the President's commission to recommend new spending programs, providers of emergency aid generally agree that more federal money, though not the ultimate solution, is needed, particularly for the chronic poor. Others call for better distribution of surplus and donated food to elderly shut-ins and disabled people....

14 January 198
unger -- Anecdotal Stuff
"Perplexed" and "deeply concerned" about reports of hunger in "this great and wealthy nation," President Reagan announced last August that he would set up a commission on hunger. This week the commission reported that "general claims of widespread hunger can neither be positively refuted nor definitively proved." Hunger thus seems to be back where it was last summer: in the eye of the beholder.
From all over America reports have been coming in of growing numbers of ill-fed and under-fed people. Increases in the demand for emergency food aid have been noted by federal government organisations (the department of agriculture, the general accounting office), by state governments (the Massachusetts department of public health), by local governments (the United States conference of mayors), by hospitals (in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City), by independent groups (such as Second Harvest, the national network of food banks), and by soup kitchens and suchlike from Los Angeles to New York. For some, however, such as Mr. Edwin Meese, the president's counsellor, the reports are "anecdotal"; he had not, in December, "heard any authoritative figures.
....Even before [its] report was formally published, the commission was being accused of bias. Those of its members who were experts on federal food programmes had all been involved with earlier administration plans to cut food aid, said the Washington Post. And one of the 13 commissioners, Dr. George Graham from John Hopkins University, is on saying that "the biggest problem among the poor is obesity -- not hunger." In 1982, he said: "As we look at the problems of blacks, all we have to do is look at our sports page to see who are the best nourished in the country."
....The commission's most controversial recommendation is the block-grant proposal. States would be allowed to drop out of federal food-aid programmes and set up their own with "one single appropriation of federal money."....Critics say that it would enable states to divert funds away from the less-likely-to-vote poor towards the more-likely-to-vote better off. It would mean the end of uniformity in the criteria for receiving food aid. Mr Robert Dole, the Republican chairman of the senate agriculture committee on nutrition, has said that the idea is unlikely to find favour in congress.
This commission certainly seems less successful than its predecessors on social security (pensions) and the MX missile, both of which tackled much more controversial issues and won a large measure of bipartisan support in congress. The hunger commission's report, widely leaked in its last stages, was considerably altered in response to the chorus of protest that greeted the leaks (at one time it apparently proposed cuts in food aid). Even the final version was clearly reckoned -- after it had gone to press -- to be too callous in tone. Thus the commission's chairman, Mr Clayburn La Force...felt obliged to issue a statement on Tuesday saying, "We find hunger to be a real and significant problem throughout the nation", even though this appeared to be at odds with the message of the report....

Washington, DC, 11 January 1984

When the Reagan administration dared to restructure social spending programs, anecdotes of the dispossessed and starving were as common in newspapers and television news shows as the weather reports. When Ed Meese said that there was no solid evidence of hunger in America, only anecdotal evidence, he was boiled in his own oil. Now the president's t ask force on hunger has released its final draft report, and even it isn't sure what the story is.
"While we have found evidence of hunger in the sense that some people have difficulties with access to food, we have also found that it is at present impossible to estimate the extent of that hunger," the report states. This tells us that perhaps there is some trouble with the delivery system, but not that the source of hunger in America is the cold heart of Ronald Reagan.
What is hunger? According to the report, "To many people hunger means not just symptoms that can be diagnosed by a physician; rather it implies the existence of a social, not a medical problem. To most Americans hunger means a situation where some people -- even occasionally -- cannot obtain an adequate amount of food, even if that shortage is not prolonged enough to cause health problems." This is the sense in which witnesses before the task force and many of the reports and studies it considered spoke of hunger. Objectivity has been better demonstrated.
Why the hungry people? Has there been a reduced commitment to the poor since Reaganism came on line? Federal expenditures and resources made available for domestic food assistance grew from $16.4 billion in 1981 to $19.3 billion in the fiscal year just ended. This does not represent a cancelling of the social contract.
Government programs don't reach everyone. Some of the discrepancy is made up by private initiatives. But there are going to be some deserving people who either don't know the aid is there or are incapable of applying for it. Some children might go to bed hungry some nights, but that is due more to parental neglect than policy.
Nobody likes to see a ragged figure seeking his dinner in a trashcan -- and street people are among the nation's hungry. Yet they suffer behavioral deficiencies as well as deficiencies of income. Their hunger has sources beyond the control of the Department of Agriculture.
Also beyond the balm of the government healers are the underlying reasons why some single-parent households come up short at the end of the month. And why some people who have never had the need for food assistance find themselves out of work and missing a meal. Until the entire population becomes a ward of the state, these shortcomings will persist....) Until then, mismanagement of personal finances will clear cupboards, as will the refusal to take jobs below one's "dignity".
....The report has the great chefs of centralized largesse and Reagan dismemberment sharpening their knives, which could be what led task force chairman J. Clayburn LaForce to state yesterday that hunger is "a real and significant problem throughout the nation." We check our facts, and wonder what he means.

Sacramento, Calif., 11 January 1984

If the President's Task Force on Food Assistance was really supposed to determine how much hunger there is in America -- ostensibly its prime objective -- then, by its own admission, it failed....If its purpose, however, was to justify the administration's parsimony and insensitivity and to obfuscate a serious problem beyond recognition, then this panel, composed largely of conservatives, succeeded admirably.
Twenty years ago, study after study dramatized and verified the existence of something many Americans believed had disappeared from this country: an endemic poverty and the malnutrition that went with it. If this task force has any impact at all -- and one has to hope it doesn't -- it is to render the problem invisible once more -- to cover it with so much bureaucratic gibberish that it is abstracted out of the national conscience.
Hunger does persist, said the panel, "but allegations of rampant hunger simply cannot be documented." Forget the loaded word "allegations" which subtly impugns the integrity and patriotism of those who make such "allegations." The reason the panel was unable to document anything was because it and its staff never made any sersious attempt to find out....
Various subpanels did hold hearings here and there, but in a manner that even some of its own members regarded as inadequate. If the task force ever really heard the voices of the hungry or, indeed, just the voices of the church groups who, with desperately limited resources, are trying to feed them, there is no evidence of it in this report.
There will be a lot of controversy about some of the task force's recommendations, particularly its proposal for combining federal food assistance programs in optional block grants to the states. Very likely that proposal, if adopted, would lead to a new round of discrimination against the very poor -- women and children most of all -- in those areas of the country where standards of worthiness are still more related to color and personal relationships t han they are to abstract standards of humanity and acceptable levels of nutrition. But that controversy, too, is a diversion serving the central function of the report, which is to bury the reality of the lengthening soup lines under an avalanche of rhetoric large enough that no one will ever notice them again