Going Hungry in America: Government's Failure
“ I don’t know, Orville,”said Senator Robert Kennedy to the Secretary of Agriculture, “I’d just get the food down there. I can’t believe that in this country we can’t get some food down there.”Others too will find it difficult to believe the facts revealed here about the failure of the Congress and the federal government to assure that millions of people in the richest, most bounteous land in the world are saved from malnutrition or starvation. This is the latest in a continuing observation of how government works — or doesn’t — by the ATLANTIC’S Washington editor.
THE Atlantic FOUNDED IN 1857
BY ELIZABETH B. DREW
FROM time to time during the past few years, there has come to public attention the jarring news that a great many Americans do not get enough to eat because they are too poor. The words ‘“starvation,” “hunger,” and “malnutrition” have all been used to describe the phenomenon. Each of these conditions is difficult to isolate, or even describe, or to separate from related diseases, because there has been little scientific or official interest in the problem. Yet it is generally agreed, even among government circles, that, at a minimum, ten million Americans are malnourished, and some of these are chronically hungry, even starving, because they are poor.
In 1967, a group of doctors, including Robert Coles of Harvard University, Joseph Brenner of MIT, Alan Mermann and Milton J. E. Senn of Yale, and private practitioners from Yazoo City, Mississippi, and Charlotte, North Carolina, took a foundation-sponsored trip to Mississippi to investigate the problem and returned to tell the Senate Subcommittee on Poverty what they had seen:
In Delta counties ... we saw children whose nutritional and medical condition we can only describe as shocking — even to a group of physicians whose work involves daily confrontation with disease and suffering. In child after child we saw: evidence of vitamin and mineral deficiencies; serious untreated skin infestation and ulcerations; eye and ear diseases, also unattended bone diseases secondary to poor food intake; the prevalence of bacterial and parasitic disease, as well as severe anemia ... in boys and girls in every county we visited, obvious evidence of severe malnutrition, with injury to the body’s tissues - its muscles, bones, and skin as well as an associated psychological state of fatigue, listlessness, and exhaustion. . . . We saw children who don’t get to drink milk, don’t get to eat fruit, green vegetables, or meat. They live on starches — grits, bread, Kooi Aid. . . . In sum, we saw children who are hungry and who are sick — children for whom hunger is a daily fact of life and sickness, in many forms, an inevitability. We do not want to quibble over words, but “malnutrition” is not quite what we found. . . . They are suffering from hunger and disease and directly or indirectly they are dying from them — which is exactly what “starvation ” means.
There is developing, moreover, a disturbing body of scientific information that indicates a connection between malnutrition in children, in particular insufficient protein, and brain damage. Seventyfive percent of the mental retardation in this country is estimated to occur in areas of urban and rural poverty.
The situation in the Mississippi Delta has been particularly acute because of unemployment as a result of mechanization, and among other things, other government programs: controlled planting, and a new one-dollar-an-hour minimum wage, which led many plantation owners to lay workers off rather than pay it. Mississippi’s welfare program pays an average of $50 a month to a family with four children, but payments are made only if the wage earner is old or disabled or blind or has left his family. Thus there are thousands of families in the Delta with no jobs and no income.
There are two basic government programs which are intended to improve the diet of the poor — the sale of food stamps and the distribution of food. The local county chooses one or the other — or neither. Government officials point out that for some time every county in Mississippi has had one of the programs. In response to the reports that people still were not getting enough to eat, the Secretary of Agriculture said to the same Senate subcommittee: “They got some food because they were obviously walking around. I don’t know where they got it.”
For some time, in fact, it has been known within the government that the food programs had serious shortcomings, in the number of people being reached and in the form of the assistance. In addition, over the past year and a half or so, domestic hunger has been the subject of a great deal of publicity. A solution would not be all that expensive: government studies have indicated that adequate food distribution for everyone who needed it would cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion more than the roughly half billion being spent on stamps and commodities now. (No one has calculated, in terms of illness and wasted and dependent lives, what it costs not to provide everyone with an adequate diet.) There were also short-range and less expensive actions that could have been taken to alleviate the most severe distress. While it would be inaccurate to say that nothing was done, the response was slow, piecemeal, and, it often seemed, reluctant. More thorough responses, including a national commitment to see that no one was denied an adequate diet because of low income, were considered, and at several points they were almost made. Because of the impact on the lives, every day, of several million people, the reasons why they were not are worth exploring.
THE food programs are run by the Department of Agriculture because they were begun not so much to help the poor as to dispose of embarrassing agricultural surpluses. Food packages are distributed once a month to the poor who live in counties which happen to want the distribution and are willing to pay for it. (Only recently, the federal government began to pay for the packages in a few of the poorest counties.) “But,”Orville Freeman, the Secretary of Agriculture, has testified to Congress, “that doesn’t mean that every person gets it, because a poor person who lives miles away from the distributing point where 100 pounds of food is made available for a month may very well (a) not even know about the distribution; (b) not be able to get there; and (c) not be able to carry it away.” (One congressman replied: “I know dead soldiers who didn’t miss out because they lived 10 miles from a recruiting office.”)
The commodity packages have only recently approximated what even the Agriculture Department considers a “minimum adequate” diet, but the cheerful assumption is made that they arc a “supplement” to a family’s food supply. The commodity package has been periodically expanded, to the point where last summer, under public pressure, the Department announced that it would now contain some twenty-two items. The list is theoretical, however; whether the various items actually end up in the package depends on whether they are in sufficient supply and whether the local community elects to include them. It takes tolerance for tedium and some culinary ingenuity to make edible meals of the surplus packages, which until last summer consisted mainly of such things as flour, cornmeal, rice, dried peas, dried beans, bulgur. Formerly they contained thirty ounces of meat for each person for an entire month; now the packages are supposed to contain more meat, dried eggs, evaporated milk, canned chicken, canned vegetables, and some others. The wrapping is to be prettier, and recipes are to be supplied, although many of the recipients can’t read.
The food stamp program, in which participants buy stamps which are worth more than the purchase price and use them to buy groceries, is preferred by just about everyone, including the local grocers. Long part of the Democrats’ agenda, food stamps were started on a pilot basis in 1961, and were finally authorized by Congress three years later. The stamps are actually a form of income supplement, but that is not the sort of thing that is said out loud, and thus a great emphasis is always placed on how this, too, is to supplement a family’s “normal” expenditure for food. It is difficult to divine just what was in the minds of the federal officials who worked out the details of how the food stamp program should work. Each month, a family may purchase a given amount’s worth of stamps, depending on their income, in exchange for a given amount of bonus. Somehow, although people in general pay about 18 percent of their income for food, the poor, under the food stamp plan, are sometimes required to pay as much as 35 to 50 percent in order to obtain any stamps at all. If they cannot afford that because of the other demands on their income, or if they do not happen to have enough cash on hand on the day that the stamps arc sold, they get no help at all. For example, after eight counties in Mississippi switched from commodity distribution to food stamps, some 32,000 fewer people were receiving food aid one year later. In Arkansas, of the 54,531 households on welfare in counties with the food stamp program, only 9700 buy the stamps. This is not peculiar to these states; while some 6 million people are estimated to be receiving either commodities or food stamps now — roughly 3 million under each program — it is seldom mentioned that six years ago even more people were being helped, albeit the great part by the inferior commodities program.
Another quirk is that the bonuses go up as the income goes up, so that the higher-income poor end up with more food than those at the bottom of the scale. The Agriculture Department explains that this is because it would not be wise to give those who are accustomed to being worst off too much too soon. In order to be certified as eligible for the program, families must run the gauntlet of the welfare agencies, many of which are not known for their sympathy toward Negroes. The food programs are sometimes used as an instrument of control: people who participate in civil rights activities or who arc needed when it is time for the crops to be picked find that the programs are suddenly unavailable. In many areas, food prices go up on the day the stamps are issued.
When the uproar over these failings developed in 1967, the Agriculture Department made a study of the situation in Washington County, Mississippi. It found, among other things, that more than half of those qualified to receive food stamps were not doing so. The investigators were not, however, greatly perturbed. “In general,” they reported, “the study indicates that low-income households in this Mississippi Delta county accommodate themselves to a diet which low-income families elsewhere would reject. ... It may be that low-income families place less value on food than we think.”
THE Department of Agriculture should not, in all fairness, be expected to demonstrate dazzling expertise in the needs and life-styles of the poor. Its essential mission is to nurture the agricultural economy; the poor are somebody else’s department. The typical employee in Agriculture has been there a long, long time. He may have come in with Henry Wallace, or he may have been a dirt farmer who was down and out during the Depression, got a government job measuring acreage, moved up through the ranks, and was promoted to Washington when he was in his fifties.
Nobody envies Orville Freeman his job, frequently described as “the worst one in town.” Freeman’s own official biography says it all: “He has been shot at not only by Congressmen, rural and urban, but also by consumers protesting food prices, farmers protesting farm prices, and dissidents of all job descriptions and all colors protesting food programs and poverty.” Freeman is a liberal out of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor movement, where he was a three-term boy-wonder governor. From the time that John F. Kennedy appointed him in 1961, Freeman has probably Stirred up less than the traditional amount of controversy for Secretaries of Agriculture. “The Administration wanted him to cultivate the farmers, not the poor or the civil rights crowd,” said one of his associates. “His tendency, in the earlier years, when the subject of hungry people came up, was to look embarrassed and change the subject.” When it could no longer be ignored, Freeman behaved like a man in a trap. Moreover, he could, and frequently did, claim with justification that during his tenure, through initiating food stamps and expanding food packages, an unprecedented amount had been done toward feeding the poor. His injured pride and his combative nature served to deepen his troubles.
Jamie Whitten, a fifty-eight-year-old congressman from Charleston, Mississippi, chairman of the subcommittee which provides funds for the Agriculture Department’s programs and one of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives, docs not believe that anybody in this country is unavoidably hungry, “except,” he says, “when there has been parental neglect through drunkenness or mental illness. You’re dealing with people who for some reason or other arc in a condition of poverty. If they had the training and foresight of other people, they wouldn’t be in poverty.”
Whitten has installed a number of employees at the Agriculture Department, and there is little that Orville Freeman does that Jamie Whitten doesn’t know about. Whitten expects Freeman to consult him before he makes any policy move, and Freeman has decided it is the better part of wisdom to do just that. The congressman is a skilled legislator, however, and knows better than to stand intransigently against the majority opinion of the House. He hasn’t often, in fact, made significant cuts in the food stamp program’s funds once the House has approved the program. Neither, if he doesn’t like what Freeman is doing, is he likely to cut into crop-support funds of such importance to the farm bloc. Whitten had denied money for work in the general area of rural poverty; Freeman is also anxious not to annoy Whitten to the point where he might cut funds which the Department lends to rural areas to build ski slides and golf courses that Freeman feels are important community programs. After a while, the relationship between a Cabinet officer and his House appropriations subcommittee chairman blurs beyond a rational if-I-do-this-he-will-do-that situation. “He simply becomes part of your thinking,” says one former Cabinet officer. “He is an automatic part of all your decisions.”
The House Agriculture Committee, which sets the policies for which Whitten’s group then provides the money, is, to state it gently, disinterested in the poor. The committee’s concerns are sheep scrapie and hog cholera and agricultural subsidies. The members of most committees see to it that the benefits of programs they preside over reach their constituents in full measure, but it is no accident that the home districts of a number of the Agriculture Committee members do not have food stamp programs. “These programs are not desired by the power structures back home,” says one close observer, “and that’s what elects them. The recipients of these programs don’t vote.”
The situation is similar in the Senate. In all cases, the Agriculture committees are almost entirely populated by representatives of Southern and Midwestern farm districts, with, in a Democratic Congress, the representatives of Southern landholders in charge. Senator James O. Eastland, for example, is the third-ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee and its most important determiner of cotton policy. Last year, the Eastland family plantations in Sunflower County, Mississippi, received $211,364 in subsidies. Despite the slipping popularity of the farm programs, and the increasing urban and suburban orientation of Congress, these men have enough seniority, and serve on enough other important committees, to make their influence felt. To the extent that the Agriculture Department budget is under attack, they try to keep the budget down by curbing the Department’s noncrop programs. “Freeman decided as a matter of policy,” says one of his former colleagues, “that he was not going to antagonize these men. He checked out appointments with them and went to enormous lengths to cultivate them socially. When the food issue came up and he got caught in his conspiracy with the Southerners on the Hill, his instinctive reaction was to deny that anything was wrong. After all, he was relying on memos from his staff, and they were defending themselves, too.”
IN APRIL, 1967, the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee’s Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty went to Mississippi. The subcommittee, headed by Senator Joseph S. Clark of Pennsylvania, was making a nationwide study of the poverty program, and since Senator Robert Kennedy was a member of the group, wherever it went, the press went too. At a hearing In Jackson, Mississippi, Marian Wright, an attractive, soft-spoken attorney for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, Incorporated, who had been working in Mississippi, talked about welfare, poverty, and the situation in the Delta. “They are starving,” she concluded. “They are starving, and those who can get the bus fare to go north are trying to go north. But there is absolutely nothing for them to do. There is nowhere to go, and somebody must begin to respond to them.”
Kennedy and Clark said they would take it to the Department of Agriculture when they returned to Washington. Senator George Murphy went them one better and said that the group should “notify the President of the United States that there is an emergency situation, and send investigators and help in immediately.” On the following day, Clark and Kennedy toured the Delta. The cameras were not there when Robert Kennedy sat on the floor in one particularly fetid shack watching a listless child toy with a plate of rice, feeling the child’s body, trying to get the child to respond, and trying to comprehend. Until then, the senators really had not known how bad it was.
After they returned to Washington, all nine members of the subcommittee signed a letter to the President describing the situation as “shocking” and constituting an “emergency,” and calling for specific Administration action. The White House, after trying not to receive it at all, bucked the letter to the Office of Economic Opportunity, which runs the poverty program, and OEO responded with a press release, its outlines dictated by the White House. The release said there was poverty in each of the senators’ home states, too; that the crisis of poverty had been greater before Lyndon Johnson took office; that the Administration had started a lot of programs in Mississippi; that the Congress had cut funds for the poverty program; that “every recommendation in the letter by the Senators has the hearty concurrence of the administration,” but there were some legal problems; and “we already know what needs to be done.”
The senators’ concern and the attendant publicity might, of course, have been seen by the White House as an opportunity to make major moves to correct the problem, just as it had made it a point to get out in front on any number of issues, such as auto safety or home ownership for the poor, raised in Congress. But this time the President was in no mood to be pushed. Neither he nor Freeman believed that the problem was as serious as Clark and Kennedy said, and both saw “politics” in the whole affair. (Department officials say that Clark and Kennedy were taken on a “pre-arranged” tour by “professionals.”) The President knew that neither senator had influence with, in fact they had highly angered, the Agriculture establishment on Capitol Hill, and to the White House these were important people not to anger. When he did move, and it was not doubted that he would, it would be at a time and in a manner of his choosing.
The problem of malnutrition had, like most conceivable domestic problems, been put before a secret interagency task force by the White House the year before, as part of the preparations for the Administration’s 1967 legislative program. The appointment of the task force, the task force was told, reflected the White House’s deep conviction that every American should have an adequate nutritional diet. The task force, headed by Agriculture Department representatives, did not, in the view of the White House, provide sufficient information on either the dimensions of the problem or possible new approaches. Neither presidential aide Joseph Califano, who had hoped to be able to propose a food program, nor his new assistant, James Gaither, was familiar enough with the complexities of the food programs to ask the right questions. Therefore nothing of any consequence was proposed. Following the senators’ letter, renewed efforts within the Administration to work something out devolved into angry disputes between OEO, particularly Director Sargent Shriver, who accused Agriculture of incapacity to deal with the problem, and Agriculture, particularly Freeman, who accused OEO of trying to damage their Department and take away the programs. It was a classic bureaucratic fight over turf.
There were two basic issues between the subcommittee and the Administration: the price of the food stamps, and the Secretary’s authority to declare an emergency in the Delta and send in extra food. After several months of subcommittee pressure and after prodding by the White House and harassment by Shriver, the Agriculture Department did lower the price of food stamps for those with an income of less than $20 a month to 50 cents per person a month, with a maximum of $3 per family. (This buys $72 worth of food for a family of six, about half what the Department estimates such a family needs.) It also decided to charge all families only half the price in the first month. Prices could not be lowered generally until there was substantially more money for the program, a decision the President would have to make.
The Department resisted the argument that there were people with no income at all who should be charged nothing for their food stamps. For one thing, the Department thought that this was a problem in a small number of cases, and therefore not worthy of great concern. For another, the Secretary believed, as he told congressional committees on several occasions, that the poor could not be trusted with free stamps. “If you proceed, then, to have free stamps,” he said, “and you give free stamps to everybody who wants them, what will happen to those stamps? Those stamps, I am afraid, in many cases will be bootlegged. That is what happened back in the 1940s and the 1930s, with the food stamp program. That destroyed the program. The food stamp program was discredited because those stamps became common currency for all kinds of things, from a wild party, to a beer party, to legitimate uses, to buy shoes.” Another view of what ended the earlier program was the almost full employment during World War II.
The senators and others argued that the Secretary should have invoked his emergency power to send extra food to the Delta, using money from a special multipurpose fund (known as Section 32 for its place in an agriculture law), as he had used it to begin the food stamp program and expand the commodity packages. The Department argued that it didn’t really have the power (despite the precedents), that the money really hadn’t been budgeted, that it would be bad precedent and administratively inefficient to distribute free food where there were already food stamps; and there was also that danger that if there were two programs the people might start bootlegging. There was also the problem that the Agriculture committees frown on such use of the money.
As the arguments tumbled forth at one private meeting, Kennedy looked at Freeman and shook his head. “I don’t know, Orville,” he said, “I’d just get the food down there, I can’t believe that in this country we can’t get some food down there.”
Oddly, the one senator who took matters in his own hands and introduced a bill was John Stennis of Mississippi. The Stennis bill would have provided money for emergency food and medical programs, and required a government study of the true extent of malnutrition. (The government had made almost no studies of malnutrition in the United States; the Public Health Service had not seen that to be its concern. The Pentagon, wanting to know about the connection between malnutrition and defense preparedness of foreign countries, had sponsored several studies of nutrition overseas, and there were minor studies of the eating habits of Eskimos and Indian tribes in the United States.)
The Stennis bill went through the Senate quickly. But his shrewd move to cut off talk about his state was not appreciated by the House Agriculture Committee, which let the bill die. Through other congressional routes, OEO was given $10 million in emergency food money and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was ordered to study the extent of malnutrition.
In September of 1967, in the only public statement on the issue he was to make for a long time, President Johnson said that “we want no American in this country to go hungry. We believe that we have the knowledge, the compassion, and the resources to banish hunger and to do away with malnutrition if we only apply those resources and those energies.” He ordered the Department of Agriculture to see to it that, one way or the other, every one of the thousand poorest counties in the nation had a food program. The Department said that there were 331 of those counties that did not, and, to give it a little of the old pizzazz, it embarked on “Project 331.” As it turned out, it was a full year before each of the 331 was said to have a program, for the Department remained highly reluctant to fly in the face of tradition by using federal money and federal personnel to establish a program if the counties resisted. It was also concerned about what it felt was a bad precedent of having the federal government pay the full costs. In May of the following year, with the Poor People’s Campaign beating at his door, Freeman finally announced that this would be done.
Extending the programs to more counties had nothing to do with improving matters for recipients, as in Mississippi. Since greater amounts of money were not committed, it also meant that other less poor counties that were on the waiting list for the food stamp program would have to continue to wait. Finally, sometime after Project 331 was under way it was discovered that Agriculture defined a “poorest” county as one with the lowest average income, rather than one with the largest number of poor people. Therefore, poor people who had the misfortune of living near too many rich people were out of luck. This covered more counties at less expense, and fewer people were helped.
The President’s encouraging statement may have been prompted by the fact that by the fall of 196 the White House had set up another secret task force, which once more reflected their deep conviction, they said, that every American should have an adequate nutritional diet. The task force, now headed by representatives of the Budget Bureau, reported that for another $1.5 to $2 billion and in relatively short time the government could provide that adequate diet to every American. Now, however, and for months to come, the Administration was locked in its fight to secure a 10 percent income surtax, from Congress, and Congress’ demand that there be substantial cuts in government spending in return. “I don’t: think anyone realizes how paralyzed we became by that fight,” says one Administration official. “I don’t think even we realized it.” With the White House feeling under particular pressure to do something about the cities (the Detroit riot had just taken place), and with their own expertise tending in that direction, Califano’s staff that fall concerned itself with devising new programs for jobs and housing. Whatever the limitations of these programs in terms of delayed spending, they at least represented a commitment and an effort at new approaches, which were not made on giving the poor sufficient food. Through it all, Mr. Johnson remained unconvinced that the problem was as serious as the critics said, reluctant to take the fight to the Hill, where he had enough problems, and annoyed that no one could tell him exactly how many people were going hungry. (No one knows exactly how many unemployed or how much substandard housing there is either.)
Moreover, there was now no great public pressure on the White House to act on hunger, as there was on behalf of the cities. During all of 1967 and 1968, only a small coterie made the issue a continuing preoccupation: Miss Wright; Peter Eclelman of Kennedy’s staff; William Smith of Clark’s staff; and Robert Choate, a young businessman of some means who took a sabbatical to become a freelance. largely behind the scenes, and highly effective crusader on the issue. Of the enormous Washington press corps, only Nick Kotz of the Des Moines Register saw the hunger issue as worthy of continuing coverage, whether or not it was “in the news.” Of all the lobby organizations, only a few of the more liberal labor groups found the issue to be of even intermittent concern.
The Citizens’ Crusade Against Poverty, an organization with United Auto Workers backing, was the closest there was to a group with a fulltime concern. Early in 1968, it had established a Citizens’ Board of Inquiry, which published “Hunger, U.S.A.,” a stinging indictment of the food programs. Around the same time, a coalition of women’s organizations published a study of the federal school lunch program which could help children of the poor secure a better meal at least while they were in school. The women’s groups found that of the 18 million children receiving free or reduced-price lunches under the program, only 2 million were poor; another 4 million poor children were not being helped. The Johnson Administration had tried to get Congress to restructure this so that less would go to the middle class and more to the poor, and Congress had adamantly refused. On May 21, CBS broadcast a powerful documentary called Hunger in America.
Several members of Congress reacted to all of this with outrage at the idea that anyone would charge that people in their areas were going hungry. Representative W. R. Poagc of Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, wrote to county health officials, the very ones who would be most culpable, and asked if they personally knew of anyone in their county who was starving or seriously hungry. No, replied most of the health officers, and if the people were hungry it was mostly because they were lazy or ignorant. A few said the food programs were inadequate, but Poagc did not emphasize that in his report to his colleagues.
The response of the politicians was understandable. More puzzling, in light of his professed zeal to get more done, were Freeman’s own persistent attacks on the reports. Finding factual errors in the small (they didn’t mention that grandma had a pension of $82-a-month), he condemned them in the large. The CBS telecast, he said, was “a biased, one-sided dishonest presentation of a serious national problem.”
AS THE Poor People’s Campaign, under the direction of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prepared for its March on Washington in the spring of 1968, strategists for both the SCLC and the federal government knew that, as always in these situations, there would have to be a governmental response which would enable the Campaign’s leaders to make an honorable withdrawal from the city. First Attorney General Ramsey Clark, then the President himself asked the various government agencies to draw up a list of administrative actions — which would not cost money — which could alleviate some of the difficulties of the poor. A March on Washington by a grand coalition of white, black, brown, and red poor, who would encamp in the federal city, bringing their plight to the attention of the country, had been the idea of Martin Luther King. After Dr. King was assassinated, the leadership of the SCLC under Dr. Ralph Abernathy was in disarray. Goals and tactics became difficult to resolve. Miss Wright, who had moved to Washington, was placed in charge of the Campaign’s dealings with the government agencies, and worked exhaustingly for weeks for a semblance of order and progress in the demands and responses. On the advice of M iss Wright and others, the Campaign leaders decided upon hunger as the central, most dramatic issue.
Now the issue was at its highest point of public attention. Most of the government agencies did what they could to respond to the marchers’ demands. Agriculture, however, remained defensive. In the end, the Agriculture response consisted of promising to get a food program into each of the thousand counties — which the President had already done nine months earlier; making more commodities available for surplus distribution; regulations to improve the school lunch program; and improved food packages for infants and expectant mothers. Some Administration officials think the poor were not grateful enough.
As it happened, the major reason this response was so paltry was that the White House was preparing one on a grander scale for the President himself to present, probably in the form of a special message to Congress. It would have revised the entire food stamp schedule and perhaps lowered the cost to the very poorest to either nothing or a token amount; it would have expanded the size of the food programs so that many more areas could receive them; and it would have carried a commitment to build the programs over time, to the point where every American had an adequate diet. The Budget Bureau squirreled away some money to go with the message. The thought was that it would be delivered around the time of “Solidarity Day,” on June 19, when thousands of others were to come to Washington to join the poor in a climactic march.
A number of reasons have been offered for why the President’s Solidarity Day Message was never delivered: the mail in the White House was overwhelmingly against the Poor People’s Campaign, and Resurrection City was out of control; Abernathy’s final speech was likely to carry a stinging denunciation of the war in Vietnam; and the House of Representatives was going to vote at last on the tax bill the following day, and any move at that point by the President to increase government spending might jeopardize the long-negotiated compromise. The most important reason, however, was that the President simply did not want to be in the position of appearing to “respond to pressure.” More startling to many was that after the poor had left town and the tax bill had passed, he still declined to move. He was focusing on the budget cuts that had to be made, annoyed at Freeman for getting out in front of him on the issue, still concerned at appearing to respond to pressure, and convinced that now that some legislation was moving on the Hill, it would be unseemly for him, the President, to appear to be running to catch up.
By this time, things were most uncomfortable for Freeman, and he began to press hard at the White House for help — belatedly, in the opinion of many. His friend Vice President Humphrey tried to help. First Humphrey offered his services as a mediator with the Poor People’s Campaign, but the offer was rejected by the White House. Then the Vice President of the United States tried indirect means of communicating with die President. Humphrey wrote to Mrs. Arthur Krim, wife of the President’s chief money raiser: “It is just intolerable to me that there is such a problem of malnutrition and undernourishment in the United States. . . . Through it all, there arc ways the President could have helped — in approving some of Orville Freeman’s budget requests, in supporting legislation on the Hill, and suggesting administrative change — but he has not. The thought came that you might be the person who could say a word or two to encourage him.”
On Capitol Hill, a bill to expand the food stamp program was moving forward. Originally an Administration request to make a minimal expansion of $20 million (over the $225 million already authorized), under pressure from urban liberals, who threatened to retaliate against a farm bill that was also in the mill, the bill ultimately authorized the program to grow by $90 million in the first year and more after that. After endorsing a substantial increase in the program, Freeman was reprimanded by both Poage and the White House, but when an increase seemed probable, the White House joined in. More spending for the school lunch program was approved, and a special Senate committee was established to “study” the food problem, with a view to trying to maneuver the food programs away from Agriculture committees.
In the very last days of the congressional session, with the President about to make a routine request for additional funds for various agencies that had fallen short of funds, the machinery around the government — in the Agriculture Department, in the Budget Bureau, in his own staff—geared up once more for a presidential request for more funds for food stamps and a major statement on the issue. Instead, he simply requested the $90 million and in the closing rush Congress gave him $55 million. Wait, it was said, for his farewell messages in 1969.
The failure of the Johnson Administration to make substantial progress toward feeding the poor is viewed by many as its most serious domestic failure. It is the cause of disappointment and even anguish on the part of many people within the government. Orville Freeman, for one, professes himself satisfied: “Everything I suggested from the beginning that should be in Lyndon Johnson’s program, or damn near it, I have gotten. If he had gone up to Congress with a big feeding program like a bull in a china shop he’d have been under fire, and what would he have gotten? Some newspaper accolades and plaudits in some liberal magazines, and trouble with Congress.”
The food issue is an unhappy example of a great deal that can go wrong in Washington. It is also an example, however, of the dangers of the latest fad of “local control.” The food programs are examples of programs that are subject to local control — the local governments request, pay for, and run them — with the result that those areas which are least responsive to the needs of the poor can also deny them federally proffered food.
The problem is not nearly so insoluble as the events of the past two years would suggest. First of all, given enough money and flexibility, it is generally agreed the food stamp program is not at all a bad device. Choate, for one, suggests that in addition the program be federalized and computerized, to work as automatically and without continual harassment for the recipient as social security. He and a number of others believe that ultimately the food programs ought to be recognized as income supplements and become part of an income maintenance system. That, however, seems a long way off. When asked by the space agency, the food companies have found ingenious ways to pack meals for astronauts in Tootsie-Rollsized bars or toothpaste-sized tubes. The Pentagon seems to have no trouble keeping the troops in the field well nourished. There are problems of tastes and habits to meet, but if the food industry were less apprehensive about change, or did less cohabiting with the farm bloc in that great combine they call “agribusiness,” a lot more could be done to feed the poor efficiently and inexpensively. The food companies have lately shown more interest in exploring this field—with government subsidies, of course.
Yet so little was accomplished not because of mechanical or industrial failures, but because of what can happen to men in policy-making positions in Washington. When they stay in a difficult job too long, they can be overwhelmed by the complexity of it all, and they become overly defensive. Man’s pride, particularly the pride of a man who can tell himself he has done some good, can overtake his intellectual honesty. Thus, not Southern politicians, not Orville Freeman, not Lyndon Johnson could face the fact when it was pointed out that many people were hungry, that they weren’t wearing any clothes. In this they reflected a national trait: it has been easier to stir sustained national concern over hunger in Bihar or Biafra than places at home for which we are more directly responsible. The problems are looked at in terms of the workings of Washington, not in terms of the problems. Decent men could sit and discuss statistical reliability and administrative neatness and the importance of good precedents while people went hungry.
The niceties of consensus politics were more important than the needs of some 10 million people. A new Congress and a new Administration ought to be able to improve on that kind of government.