THE PRESIDENT has assembled yet another group of outside experts to help him handle a difficult political problem. This one is meant to find out if hunger exists in America and, if the group finds that it does, to recommend what the government should do about it. What might the experts find?
It's a pretty safe bet that the Task Force on Food Assistance, as it is now officially named, will discover whatever it sets out to find. If it really wants to find hunger, it will find many cases that fit that definition as it might properly be applied in the richest country in the world. Not the swollen bellies and glassy eyes that still characterize hunger in much of the developing world. Thanks to the food assistance programs spawned by the antipoverty crusade of the late '60s and early '70s, that sort of dire hunger has been all but eliminated in America. But the task force will have no trouble finding children and adults who are sufficiently undernourished to be willing to wait in long lines for a modest meal and who gobble down those meals with the knowledge that the next solid meal is not a certain thing.
It should come as no surprise to the experts that the people who run the soup kitchens and emergency food pantries report that their clientele has been increasing steadily since 1981. After all, so has the poverty rate. Poverty is now more prevalent than it has been in 17 years. Unemployment, especially long-term unemployment, set post-Depression records in the recent recession, and it hit with unusual force on family breadwinners. Thanks to administration budget cuts, government food programs are spending $3 billion less a year--and, contrary to administration claims, these savings came at the expense of many poor people. Recent strong employment gains should begin to reduce the food lines, but there is still a long way to go before unemployment returns to the 5.8 percent level of four years ago.
On the other hand, if the study group is so minded, it can find reasons to exonerate the government from blame. It can point to poor families who fail-- for reasons good and bad--to earmark the 30 percent of their own cash income that the government says is needed, along with their food stamps, to buy a minimally adequate diet. Others will be unwilling to dispose of the small assets that make them ineligible for aid. Still more families will be found--not just among the poor--whose idea of an adequate diet for children runs more to potato chips and soft drinks than to leafy greens and high-protein cereals.
If it wants to focus on an aspect dear to the president's heart, the task force can rediscover the fact that the complicated rules that govern welfare and food stamps foster mispayments, small in the individual case but sizable in the aggregate. But it won't know what to do about that because this administration has added greatly to the complications. It can also find some big-time fraud--though this is not typically the handiwork of the poor.
None of this will come as a surprise to the dozens of congressmen, bureaucrats and outside experts who have studied poverty and hunger for almost two decades. But perhaps it will be educational for the president, who seems genuinely surprised to have learned that not all his fellow citizens rise fully satisfied from their tables. One finding by the task force would, however, be surprising. That would be support for the further cuts in food programs--including food stamp cuts for four out of five households with income less than half the poverty line-- that the president is seeking for next year's budget.