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The era of big government has given way to the era of sharing leftovers

by Jack Beatty

October 15, 1997

For more than a decade the working poor -- the people who, as Jesse Jackson has put it, take the early bus -- have been steadily losing ground. According to a recent article in The New York Times, the "median income for the poorest 20 percent of families fell last year, even though the economy was zipping along." One consequence of this economic-boom-proof downward mobility is hunger -- or at least so a disturbing study just released by the Department of Agriculture suggests.

Related article:

"The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done," by Peter Edelman (March 1997)
A Clinton appointee who resigned in protest over the new welfare law explains why it is so bad and suggests how its worst effects could be mitigated.

Previously in Politics & Prose:

  • Down With Majority Rule -- September 1997
    Imagine an America where the majority does not rule. That may be what's needed to resuscitate our political system.

  • Talkin' About a Coalition -- August 1997
    Is there a new Democratic majority in the making? Perhaps, but what will it stand for?

  • Nasty NAFTA -- July 1997
    It's time for Congress to rein in NAFTA.

  • The Full-Court Press of Reason -- April 1997
    On newspapers and gut reactions.

    More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound

    Discuss this topic in The Body Politic forum of Post & Riposte.

  • The Food Security Measurement study is the first methodologically sound survey of hunger in the United States; it is a piece of social science, a statistical portrait of reality. Using annual Census Bureau surveys, among other measures, the study found that 11.9 million households (about 34 million people) "experienced some level of food insecurity during the twelve months prior to the April, 1995 survey." Of these, 7.8 million experienced "food insecurity without hunger" (anxiety, say, that looming bills could force a cut in the family diet), 3.3 million households experienced "food insecurity with moderate (mainly adult) hunger," and an alarming 800,000 households "experienced food insecurity with severe hunger," a category defined by the Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy as follows: "Households with children [which] have reduced the children's food intake to an extent that the children have repeatedly experienced the physical sensation of hunger." And this study was conducted before the food-stamp program was gutted by welfare reform.

    The Clinton Administration has responded to its own study in a revealing fashion -- by urging the well-fed to save their leftovers for the hungry. It's a pity that the hungry did not contribute to the President's victorious re-election campaign. Had they paid up in the proper way the Administration might not have cut food stamps by $24 billion as part of its Orwellian "welfare reform" and might not now be recommending that private charity reduce hunger. Incredibly, President Clinton has boldly committed the United States to halving the number of "food insecure" by the year 2015 -- seventeen hungry years from now. Why so few and why so long?

    "We cannot stand by and let people in this nation starve," Vice-President Gore, who has rarely denied himself second helpings, said at a press conference upon release of the USDA study. He chose his words carefully. "Starve" is not "go hungry."

    The well-fed conservative gentlemen at The Weekly Standard, which pooh-poohed the whole study as liberal crisis-mongering, noted sardonically that America "is supposedly choking with privation, and the Clinton Administration politely suggests that you should donate your half-eaten sandwich to a local community kitchen." The Standard was right in regarding the response to the hunger study as a paradigm of the "emptiness of second-term Clintonism in general": the Administration wants credit for empathy and good intentions while hoping at the same time that, as The Standard put it, "no one notices how little [it] actually dares to do about anything." Clinton is effectively helpless in the face of rooted problems and is ideologically intimidated, afraid that in the early innings of the 2000 presidential extravaganza some frost-bitten recluse in Iowa or New Hampshire might label Al Gore a liberal.


  • More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound

  • Discuss this topic in The Body Politic forum of Post & Riposte.

    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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