Domestic food assistance problems are on the minds of many Americans these days-- including President Reagan. To demonstrate his concern, the president has appointed a special Task Force on Food Assistance to assess the problem and report to him within 90 days. Personally, I hope the group will offer constructive ideas--not just suggestions for more federal responsibility or more federal dollars.
Members of Congress, especially those of us on committees with jurisdiction over federal nutrition programs, are aware of scattered problems in the food assistance area-- problems obviously accentuated by high unemployment. It is also recognized that, although more money is being spent on nutrition programs than ever before, some deserving Americans are falling in the cracks.
While there certainly are problems, most identified so far are based upon anecdotal evidence. There has been no documentation of nationwide "hunger" problems, unless one accepts frequently biased media reports.
In April, my nutrition subcommittee held a hearing on "The Nutritional Status of Low- Income Americans in the 1980s" in an attempt to determine the extent of reported "hunger" problems and the potential causes. This hearing underscored the fact that comprehensive, objective, up-to-date information is not available. The reality of the "hunger" problem has been distorted by media in response to complaints by "hunger" critics who seldom offer constructive ideas. They are, by and large, liberal Democrats who will always be "anti-Reagan"--a point never made by the writers or commentators.
As the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on nutrition, I have actively participated in the development of the federal nutrition programs since the late 1960s. For the most part, it is my view that food assistance programs have been effective in alleviating domestic nutrition problems. No one who objectively reviews the issue believes we are witnessing a return to the conditions existing a decade or two ago.
Let's treat this issue fairly. While there are some deserving Americans who fail to receive adequate food assistance, there are others who benefit who should not.
This is rarely the focus of attention by "hunger" activists or the media, but it should be noted that, in the food stamp program alone, an estimated $1 billion annually is squandered through excessive benefits, payments to ineligible recipients and outright fraud. A billion dollars could go a long way in assisting those not now being reached.
Another point that deserves clarification is the repeated allegation by "hunger" critics that the Reagan budget cuts are the direct cause of all the alleged hardships. The truth is that Congress finally recognized some areas in the food assistance programs were getting out of hand. The net result was achievement of significant savings in 1981--near the level of the president's budget request, but accomplished by Republican and Democratic cooperation.
For example: we instituted a provision for the prorating of monthly benefits in the first month of participating in the food stamp program. This means in effect that, instead of receiving a full month's allotment, newly eligible participants would receive only an allotment equivalent to the actual days remaining in the month for which they initially qualified. This provision alone saves about $600 million annually.
Throughout this process of review and cost reduction, we protected the interests of those without strong voices in Congress by rejecting a number of undesirable amendments. We did this, and still managed to reduce food stamp program costs by about $7 billion over a three-year period, fiscal years 1982-1985. The changes made served to better target benefits, eliminate some fraud and waste, and initiate much-needed administrative improvements. In my view, Congress must continue to scrutinize these programs to make them more cost-effective, being responsive to the needs of both deserving recipients and overburdened taxpayers.
Let me cite another area constantly in the news. While nutrition problems persist, so do government-owned agricultural surpluses. This is a striking paradox, and it is genuinely difficult to comprehend that there can be scarcity for some while mountainous surpluses of agricultural commodities exist simultaneously.
This dilemma, recognized by Congress and the administration, perhaps explains why the final piece of legislation acted on by Congress before the August recess was a two-year extension of the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Act. This act will require the secretary of agriculture to distribute surplus cheese, butter, milk, wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and honey to eligible recipient agencies that provide food assistance in local communities. This proposal, which I introduced for myself and 33 other Republican and Democratic senators, includes $50 million in funding for intrastate distribution and storage, with $10 million set aside for use by local agencies, in order to ensure that the program can be effectively implemented.
Finally, it should be noted that, while the unemployment rate is falling with the strong economic recovery, many Americans still face daily hardships. Soup kitchens are serving more people than ever before, and food banks are busier than ever. An unprecedented number of households are participating in the food stamp program--23.4 million in contrast to just under 21 million four years ago.
More money is being spent on the food stamp program now--a total of about $12.8 billion. In 1979 food stamp costs totaled about $7 billion, and combined federal food program expenditures were about $11 billion. The federal government is now spending close to $17.8 billion on about 10 separate programs.
In addition to the food stamp program, there are numerous child nutrition programs, including school lunch, school breakfast, child care food, summer food, commodity supplemental and special supplemental food program for women, infants and children, usually referred to as WIC. Nearly $4.8 billion annually is being spent on these combined programs.
There is also a false notion, advocated by some, that sole responsibility for food assistance, including distribution, should rest with the federal government. On the contrary, it is my view that federal efforts should be generously supplemented by state and local governments--all working together with nonprofit organizations and community volunteers.
While nutrition programs have had a dramatic, positive impact on hunger and malnutrition in this country, the federal bureaucracy--no matter how sensitive--cannot possibly respond to all the problems of individuals in need of food assistance. Responsibility must be spread and shared if we are to properly serve those who permanently or temporarily need help. For starters, more bipartisan cooperation and less partisan rhetoric would be helpful.