Why would such a wealthy nation not only allow hunger to persist, but even put forward policies likely to exacerbate it? The answer rests in part in a misconceptualization of hunger. Paternalistic rhetoric about the importance of work in qualifying someone to receive governmental aid forgets the very reason we have food-based welfare in the first place — hunger and food insecurity — and strikes a blow against SNAP’s purpose. This rhetoric transforms the food choices and physical bodies of SNAP users into markers of how undeserving recipients are, implicitly asserting that starvation-level hunger is the only legitimate kind of hunger, and that it doesn’t exist in the United States. The end result is more hungry Americans.
The first permanent food stamp program was enacted in 1964 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. While this was a major step toward addressing hunger in prosperous postwar times, it did not fully meet low-income Americans’ nutrition needs. States retained the power to determine who should access the program, and recipients needed to pay upfront before they could access their food aid.
The power of states to limit recipients left some Americans hungry. White Southern conservatives ran stingy programs out of a combination of racism, retaliation over Civil Rights gains and a desire to maintain the economic and political status quo. As NAACP lawyer Marian Wright testified, the difficulty that Black Mississippians had obtaining food stamps was “a way of ensuring cheap, desperate laborers who would be available for seasonal agricultural labor.”
When advocates challenged conservative Southern Democrats on their bigotry and stinginess, the conservatives rarely even bothered to deny the discrimination. Instead, they questioned the entire premise that Americans could be hungry. When Senator Robert Kennedy “discovered poverty,” including children with distended and bloated bellies, during his 1967 tour of Mississippi, that state’s governor, Paul Johnson dismissed these findings out of hand, countering that “Nobody is starving in Mississippi. The nigra women I see are so fat they shine.”
It was not only politicians who struggled with the idea Americans could be so poor they were actually hungry. A 1968 CBS News special, Hunger in America depicted the issues of hunger plaguing vast swaths of America. A Navajo doctor told the camera about the physical deficits of American Indian children living on reservations. The program showed underweight children, including a dying infant.
But instead of catalyzing a unified push to eradicate hunger, the special divided Americans.
Some viewers found the program infuriating — not because of disturbing images of starvation and hunger — but over the dissemination of what they saw as “liberal propaganda.” In a letter to the Department of Agriculture, one woman described the show as a “poverty hoax,” and said that “it is tragic” that Americans are so gullible they will “swallow such nonsense that 10 million people is on starvation in this country.” Americans could not be starving hungry, even if they were poor, she insisted, and if people believed otherwise they were being duped.
By contrast, other viewers found themselves aghast over the images themselves. Another letter writer to the Department of Agriculture explained that he did not want to believe this kind of hunger could be real, but “with the vision of child after child showing the scars of malnutrition it seemed to me that [the Department of Agriculture] has some explaining to do.”
Why such a divided response? Because of the same persistent doubts that hunger existed in America — and the ability to find what seemed to be evidence to support them. After all, didn’t images of obese, impoverished Americans challenge any notion of hunger plaguing the country?
At the root of this debate were differences over what constituted hunger and malnutrition in the United States and what caused them — regardless of their manifestations. To anti-hunger activists, for example, obesity among impoverished Americans stemmed from poor diets full of cheap commodities lacking nutrition — reinforcing their perceptions of a societal problem over hunger and nutrition.
But a doctor writing to the House Agriculture Committee in 1968 disagreed as to what caused this obesity. To him, high-calorie commodities provided food and an opportunity for people “to put in a good hard twelve hours in the sun on a handle of a hoe or shovel.” He argued that the food wasn’t to blame. It was the laziness of welfare recipients who lacked motivation to “work it off as fast as he takes it in.”
To such skeptics, it didn’t much matter whether the malnourished were obese or had ribs showing, the real issue was one of personal responsibility — and amid the divisive political environment of the late 1960s, conservatives increasingly agreed with this rationale. And so, they pointed to images of hungry or malnourished and obese Americans as evidence of poor individual choices, not evidence of a larger problem with the American economic system.
Questions about deservingness of the poor have persisted to the present and shaped the battles over food stamps as they have evolved over the past 54 years. Healthful, nutritional eating can be expensive, but many politicians ignore this reality and instead blame welfare recipients for “choosing” an unhealthy lifestyle over a healthy one.
And so, the solution has been to decrease the number of Americans with access to food welfare, even as food insecurity itself has not decreased. Rather than ensuring no one is hungry in this nation, we simply insist that real hunger does not exist. As conservatives downplay the seriousness of domestic hunger, describing the supposedly “lobster-eating” poor, as Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) did recently, they make space for debates over work requirements instead of over basic health needs.
Earlier this year, President Trump proposed a “Harvest Box” modeled off the meal service Blue Apron that would dictate what SNAP recipients ate. Like many who criticize the consumption habits of SNAP clients, the idea was to cut out access to junk food and other “frivolous” items. Trump’s administration reasoned that if impoverished Americans were truly hungry, they would accept whatever they were given.
In our fast-paced news cycle the “Harvest Box” quickly got replaced by the more attainable goal of tightening SNAP work requirements. Once again, the conversation focused on individual choice: in this case forcing individuals to fulfill certain work requirements that would purportedly allow them to take command of their lives.
But in reality the new proposal merely makes it more difficult for individuals to access the very resources that will help them avoid hunger. Those with uneven work hours will struggle to fulfill the requirements and those entitled to an exemption may be unable to navigate the bureaucracy needed to get it.
And so, once again, policymakers are ignoring the reality of hunger and starvation that plagues 15.6 million Americans, dismissing their obligation to help them and instead turning to politically potent rhetoric about individual responsibility that taps into a long-held distrust of claims of hunger in the U.S.
The result of this catastrophic mistake is that millions of Americans are still hungry. By refusing to frame the farm bill debate over SNAP in terms of this hunger, we are en route to making the problem even worse.