Friday, September 13, 2013

The GOP wants Breadlines, not Food Stamps

Since the onset and aftermath of the Great Recession, Americans haven't seen the public breadlines that proliferated in the 1930s after the Great Depression because of food stamps (the SNAP program). In 2013, the poor and unemployed obtained their food in grocery stores and eat their meals in the privacy of their homes; they no longer have to go to soup kitchens or stand in long breadlines.

The first food stamp program (FSP) permitted Americans on relief to buy orange stamps equal to their normal food expenditures; for every $1 worth of orange stamps purchased, 50 cents worth of blue stamps were received. Orange stamps could be used to buy any food; blue stamps could only be used to buy food determined by the Department of Agriculture to be surplus.

Over the course of nearly 4 years (from 1939 to 1943) the first FSP reached approximately 20 million people at one time or another in nearly half of the counties in the U.S. before the program had ended, since the conditions that first brought the program into being (unmarketable food surpluses and widespread unemployment) no longer existed after the onset of World War II.

It wasn't until 1961 when President Kennedy's first Executive Order called for expanded food distribution when he announced that food stamp pilot programs would be initiated. The pilot programs would retain the requirement that the food stamps be purchased, but eliminated the concept of special stamps for surplus foods (a Department of Agriculture spokesman indicated the emphasis would be on increasing the consumption of perishables).

Later President Johnson requested Congress to pass legislation making the food stamp program permanent with the Food Stamp Act of 1964. A decade later in 1974 almost 14 million Americans relied on food stamps when the FSP was nationwide. Since then, various methods of "means testing" were applied to determine eligibly requirements. As of 2013, they were very strict --- but the Republicans are passing legislation to make it even more difficult to acquire food while very high unemployment still exists in a very weak economy. What is it about the hungry and poor that Republicans just can't stand?

Just prior to the stock market crash in 2008 (during George W. Bush's final months in office) participation in the food stamp program had reached an all-time (non-disaster) high of 29 million people per month. But because of the Great Recession and its aftermath, unemployment has doubled, as did the number of participants in the food stamp program (almost 48 million as of today).

Throughout history, societies have invariably recognized a moral obligation to feed the hungry. The philosopher Simone Weil has wrote that feeding the hungry (when one has resources to do so) is the most obvious obligation of all, and that as far back as Ancient Egypt, it was believed that people needed to show they had helped the hungry in order to justify themselves in the afterlife. (Considering their lack of empathy for the poor, most likely there is no afterlife for many members of the current Congress.)

Soup has long been one of the most economical and simplest ways to supply nutritious food to large numbers of people. Social historian Karl Polanyi wrote that before markets became the world's dominant form of economic organization in the 19th century, most human societies would generally either starve all together or not at all, because communities would naturally share their food. (Members of Congress rake in $174,000 a year from the taxpayers, but the Republicans would never share anything with anyone, let alone starve themselves to feed the poor.)

Since the 19th century, as markets began to replace the older forms of resource allocation (such as Redistribution, Reciprocity and Autarky), society's overall level of food security would typically rise. But food insecurity could become worse for the poorest section of society, and the need arose for more formal methods for providing them with food.

Christian churches have been providing food to the hungry since Saint Paul's time, and since at least the Early Middle Ages when such nourishment was sometimes provided in the form of soup. Today some members of Congress are asking why our churches and charities aren't doing more to feed the 47 million Americans who rely on food stamps (Al Sharpton said, "Yes, and maybe we should have had the churches bail out the banks too.")

The earliest modern soup kitchen may have been established in Germany by Count Rumford in 1790. Unlike many members of Congress today, the Count was a prominent advocate of hunger relief, writing pamphlets that were read by numerous politicians across Europe. His message was especially well received in Great Britain, where he had previously held a senior government position for several years and was known as "the Colonel". An urgent need had arisen during that time in Britain for food relief, due to its leading role in driving the Industrial Revolution.

While technological development and economic reforms were rapidly increasingly overall prosperity, conditions for the poorest were often made worse, as traditional ways of life were disrupted (just as we see workers displaced today with modern technology and outsourcing). In the closing years of the 18th century soup kitchens that were ran on the principles pioneered by Rumford were to be found throughout England and Scotland, with about 60,000 people being fed by them daily in London alone.

While soup kitchens were generally well regarded, they did attract criticism from some, for encouraging dependency, and sometimes on a local level for attracting vagrants to an area. In Britain they were made illegal by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. But the prohibition against soup kitchens were soon relaxed, even though they never again became as prevalent on mainland Britain as they had been in the early 19th century, partly because economic conditions generally began to improve --- even for the poorest.

For the first few decades after the return of soup kitchens to mainland Britain, they were at first heavily regulated, run by groups like the Charity Organization Society. Even in the early twentieth century, campaigning journalists like Bart Kennedy would criticize them for their long queues, and for the degrading questions staff would ask the hungry before giving out any soup (the earliest form of "means testing"?)

In the United States, the earliest soup kitchens may have been established in the 1870s. A sharp rise in the number of hungry people resulting from an industrial recession coincided with the success of the AICP and the American branch of the Charity Organization Society in getting various forms of "outdoor relief" banned. This resulted in a "civil society" of establishing soup kitchens to help feed the poor (which helped eliminate the public blight on "respectable" neighborhoods, like having a "spectacle" of long lines of shabby poor people begging for food.)

The concept of soup kitchens may have first spread to the United States from Ireland, where soup kitchens had been legalized after the Great Famine, with the Soup Kitchen Act of 1847. It is believed the term “breadline” entered the popular lexicon in the 1880s. It was during those years that a noteworthy bakery in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Fleischmann Model Viennese Bakery, instituted a policy of distributing unsold baked goods to the poor at the end of their business day.

By the late 19th century soup kitchens were to be found in several U.S. cities. The concept of soup kitchens hit the mainstream of United States consciousness during the Great Depression. One soup kitchen in Chicago was even sponsored by American mobster Al Capone in an effort to clean up his image.

With the improved economic conditions that followed WWII, there was less need for soup kitchens in the advanced economies of countries such as the United States. According to sociology professor Janet Poppendieck (Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement), hunger within the U.S. was widely considered to be solved until the mid-1960s. By then, several states had ended the free distribution of federal food surpluses, instead providing an early form of food stamps (via the Food Stamp Act of 1964) which had the benefit of allowing recipients to choose food of their liking, rather than having to accept whatever happened to be in surplus at the time.

However, there was a minimum charge and some people could still not afford the stamps, leading to severe hunger. One response from American society was to step up the support provided by soup kitchens and similar civil society food relief agencies. There was also extensive lobbying of politicians to improve welfare. (But in the aftermath of the Great Recession, there was no such extensive lobbying by Republican politicians to improve anything for the poor and unemployed...just the opposite.)

By the 1970s, U.S. federal expenditure on hunger relief grew by about 500%, with food stamps distributed free of charge to those in greatest need. According to Janet Poppendieck, welfare was widely considered preferable to grass roots efforts (like churches and charities, and their soup kitchens), as they could be unreliable, did not give recipients consumer-style choice in the same way as did food stamps, and risked recipients feeling humiliated by having to turn to charity.

In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan's administration scaled back welfare, leading to a rapid rise in activity from hunger relief agencies such as food banks and soup kitchens. According to a comprehensive government survey completed in 2002, over 90% of food banks, about 80% of emergency kitchens, and all known food rescue organizations were established in the U.S. after 1981 (Food and Famine in the 21st Century by William A. Dando)

Since then, the use of soup kitchens has grown rapidly across the rest of the world (the U.S. had the SNAP program). The global financial crisis in 2008 further increased the demand for soup kitchens, as did the introduction of austerity policies that have become common in Europe since 2010 --- the same austerity that the Republicans in the U.S. have also been pushing for.

But Republican members of Congress, who are currently trying to drastically cut food stamps to the poorest of Americans (in an effort led by Eric Cantor), will not want soup kitchens outside their posh taxpayer-paid congressional offices. People like Eric Cantor would not want the "spectacle" of long breadlines of shabby poor people begging for food outside his home.

According to a new Gallop poll, 20% of Americans said they struggled to afford food in the past year. Americans' ability to consistently afford food has not yet recovered to the pre-recession levels last seen in April of 2008 while George W. Bush was still President, when he was once the "food stamp president".

In addition to the current farm bill being proposed by the GOP for cutting food stamps, Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) on Tuesday proposed legislation that would also require people using federal food stamps to buy only healthy food. Under Roe's bill, food purchased under SNAP would have to meet the same guidelines that food purchased under the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program already have to meet. The WIC guidelines are strict, and are made up of several different standards for products like breakfast cereal, milk, vegetables, peanut butter and other foods. (Why not just force poor people who need food stamps to only buy whole wheat bread? And they can just drink tap water.)

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