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Hunger among US working poor. Blue-collar Americans falling through federal safety net

While America was preoccupied with stock-market gyrations, a quieter and more tangible anguish was continuing in the nation's heartland. It is hunger. And while America has no monopoly on jittery stock traders, it is the only industrialized nation in which substantial numbers of people are hungry, J.Larry Brown of the Harvard School of Public Health said in an interview last week.

``We don't have hunger due to scarcity, like in Ethiopia,'' he said. ``It's a political problem.''

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Dr. Brown chairs the Physician Task Force on Hunger in America, a group of 23 doctors and clergymen from across America. The task force hopes its report, its third on the subject, will thrust the issue into the political arena. Called ``Hunger Reaches Blue Collar America,'' the report says that hunger in America is taking on a new dimension.

These are not the conventional scenes from Appalachia and South Bronx, but from places that until recently were the seats of blue-collar prosperity: Texas oil fields, the rust belt, mining towns in Minnesota. Fifteen percent of Oregon residents applied for food relief of some kind last year, the report says. In Texas, a state legislator reports, such requests have doubled since 1983, to 3.6 million.

``They're mostly middle-age and white,'' the head of a Texas relief agency said of the ``new poor.'' ``They once earned $12 to $16 an hour and now make $3.80 when they're lucky.''

Brown and associates throw down the ideological gauntlet. ``Supply-side economics has failed as a remedy for domestic hunger,'' they write, referring to the premise of the Reagan administration that a growing economy automatically alleviates such needs. ``Responsible government action is required to cure this modern-day epidemic.''

The prose gets rather heated. (``The government they once trusted, and in whose beneficence they once invested in tax dollars, now defines them as ineligible for help.'') And at least one sympathetic observer wondered whether the indignation was all that warranted.

``If physicians want to do something for social spending,'' said Michael Barker, chief economic adviser of the Democratic Leadership Conference in Washington, ``the most significant thing they can do is stop the greed-driven upward spiral of medical costs. These, more than anything else, have bled off the social side of the budget over the last 20 years.''

The report makes two basic points. First, economists often talk in a way that obscures problems like hunger. To read that ``growth'' has continued for 58 straight months, induces a warm glow of well-being. But such ``aggregate'' data hide the deprivation in particular areas that are left out of the overall prosperity.

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Second, federal programs for helping hungry people often fail in the case of the ``working poor.'' Asset tests are an example. The purpose of these is to screen out people who drive up to the food-stamp office in stereotypical ``welfare Cadillacs.'' But others find themselves caught in the same net. ``When the welfare worker found we drove a '64 Chevy, she tried to disqualify us because you can't have an antique car,'' one mother of five told the task force.

Bankrupt farmers are forced to sell off all their machinery before they can get help. ``The government makes you spend yourself into the dirt ... and start over just to get $60 in food stamps to feed your kids a month,'' an Iowa farmer said.

Charles Murray, who several years ago wrote ``Losing Ground'' - a controversial indictment of conventional social programs, questioned the study in ways that point to the fundamental liberal-conservative split.

Mr. Murray says in effect that the physicians group is looking only at a single snapshot in time rather than at how the movie comes out. He has just completed a study of actual case histories of the ``working poor'' that demonstrates, he says, that ``in the vast majority of cases, if you stay in the labor force you get out of poverty and stay out.''

Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, a frequent adversary of Murray, says ``being poor for two or three or four years is not something that can be dismissed simply because the individuals in question won't be poor for 20 or 30 years.''

Mr. Greenstein and others say the new ``working poor'' have not yet changed the politics of food-stamp and other relief programs, the way widespread suffering stirred support for welfare back in the depression. And given the federal budget squeeze, it's doubtful much new spending is in the offing. ``In the 1981 budget cuts, the working poor were hit much harder than those not working,'' he says.

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