Foreclosures, unemployment, poverty and hunger now stalk America. Welfare checks, food stamps, and food bank shortages are now on the minds of many middle-class families caught by surprise in ever deepening recession.
Although somewhat dated, a 2003 UCLA Health Policy Research Study found that 1.2 million people in Los Angeles County alone were “food insecure,” unsure of where their next meal might come from. Significantly, the study did not include children, the homeless, and those without phones. The number of Americans who lack enough food is now at the highest level since the government has kept records on this issue.
There are some encouraging developments on the ground. Community and religious organizations are now directing more resources toward food banks and efforts to feed the homeless. Similarly, information about local food banks, school lunch programs, timebanks and other resources is also more prevalent. But the need far outpaces the supply.
For this reason, the role of food stamps is critical in efforts to combat hunger. Food stamp use is now at record highs and increasing every month. There is evidence that as need grows the stigma of such use decreases. Terming the aid “nutritional assistance” rather than welfare has further encouraged this de-stigmatization.
Perhaps one reason for this more ‘liberal’ attitude is that whites have now joined historically traditional—and stereotypical– recipients in Blacks and poorer rural communities, including those in relatively affluent suburban areas like Orange County, California, or Forsyth County, Georgia, and other areas in which Republicans predominate.
Traditional Efforts to Combat Hunger
The role of food stamps is critical in efforts to combat hunger, an effort that has been generally bipartisan. At the same time, some conservative critics express fears about the effect of food stamps on the work ethic of recipients, abuse by those not truly in need, and related concerns.
One factor about foods stamps that is often overlooked is that such expenditures are an “economic multiplier”: investments in food stamps result in high levels of recipient spending –not saving — with ripple effects felt strongly in the local community.
Progressive Efforts to Combat Hunger
Social justice advocates regard hunger as the result of structural problems that cry out for remedies at that level. We already know many of them: a “livable wage,” as well as reassessment of national priorities of expenditures on social investments and infrastructure. Related goals include New Deal-like programs, fighting racism against minorities and immigrants, as well as an end to funding wars if there is no meaningful civilian oversight, real auditing, and defined goals.
We also need to reconnect with our history. In the 1960’s, welfare rights groups grew out of the civil rights movement. George Wiley, Director of the National Welfare Rights Organization, was a former leader the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr., supported the welfare rights movement, reserving the opening day of the Poor People’s Campaign with a welfare mothers’ march led by his wife, Coretta Scott King. King himself underscored the importance of the link between wars abroad and depleted social investments at home, including hunger-fighting programs.
The re-emergence of movements of women (single women with children are especially likely to need assistance), of organized labor demanding a living wage, welfare rights and tenant rights groups, and an anti-war movement will be essential if real progress is to be attained.
Gene Rothman, DSW, LCSW, is a retired social worker active with interfaith groups in Culver City and with the Social Action/Social Justice Council of the National Association of Social Workers.