In 1968 the documentary Hunger In America aired on CBS. The film exposed the prevalence of hunger and malnutrition in the United States. I was among the many who were shocked. The sight of children with distended bellies begging on the streets of Calcutta had kept me awake nights as I traveled back from my first job teaching in Taiwan. A year later I’d married a man who worked for CARE and often accompanied him distributing food and cooking oil to villagers in the Dominican Republic. I knew too many people in too many places were hungry every day. I knew that poverty and hunger were ugly killers. But until the documentary aired I was ignorant of the extent of hunger and malnutrition in the United States.
The film and the outcry that followed generated additional Congressional support for efforts in various areas to make good use of food surpluses and feed people in need. By 1974 the Food Stamp Program, (now known officially as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), was operating across the nation.
Hunger continues to plague America, but for four decades food stamps have been one of the most effective and efficient federal efforts directed toward the alleviation the severe, long lasting consequences of malnutrition. The food stamps have done more than any other government program to lift children out of extreme poverty.
Thus last week’s passage of a farm bill without any consideration of food stamps and other food assistance programs, struck me as more than just another Congressional wrangle between political parties with divergent agendas. It went beyond the anti-woman/anti child proposals cloaked in pious platitudes. This was a vote in favor of hunger, a pro-poverty vote.
The republican rationale for separating farm policies from food for the hungry went like this: separation facilitates cuts to agribusiness subsidies; food stamps can be addressed later. But few could miss the obvious agenda in conservative rhetoric: drastic cuts to ‘wasteful spending’ on nutrition programs for those seen as lazy, work adverse freeloaders responsible for swelling the ranks of program beneficiaries.
This rationale flies in the face of facts. Forty one percent of food stamp recipients live in households with at least one wage earner and less than ten percent of those receiving food stamps are also receiving welfare benefits.
Furthermore, years of data on the food stamp program indicate that in economic downturns more people need and use food stamps; but as the economy improves, the number needing assistance declines. Studies also reveal that more than seventy percent of food stamp recipients live in households with children, many headed by single working mothers; more than one-quarter live with senior citizens or people with disabilities. Put another way forty-seven percent of all those receiving food stamps are children and a significant number of recipients are unable to work due to debilitating conditions.
Far from being a rip off of taxpayer money, the SNAP program is an investment in the nation’s future. Research repeatedly shows that children with nutritious diets are healthier and do better in school than their malnourished classmates. Studies comparing children living in poverty who receive SNAP assistance with those who do not find consistent advantages in healthy development for program beneficiaries. Pregnant women with healthy diets give birth to healthier babies.
But the positive benefits of food stamps are not restricted to infants and children. Benefits extend well in to adulthood. Last November the National Bureau of Economic Research released a working paper, “Long Term Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net”, co-authored by Hilary Hoynes, Diane Schanzenbach and Douglas Almond. Their research revealed that adults with access to food stamps as children in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the final trimester in utero and early childhood, had significantly better health than adults from similar backgrounds who had not received nutritional assistance. Better health included lower incidents of serious metabolic syndrome conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Furthermore, women receiving food stamp assistance as children fared better economically in adulthood. They were less apt to be receiving safety net benefits than similar adult women without access to food stamps during childhood.
Giving children a nutritious start in life is the first step in raising healthy, economically productive, community-minded citizens. No democracy can succeed with out such a citizenry. We knew this more than sixty years ago when the first major pieces of the food stamp program were initiated. Today’s willful “forgetting” is shortsighted and dangerous. Those who do so should not be allowed to argue that they “didn’t know the facts”. Ignorance of the law is not an acceptable excuse in legal proceedings; ignorance of fact should be viewed as equally unacceptable in matters of public policy.