The continuing scourge of poverty, hunger and hopelessness in Rich America

Children’s Defense Fund

In March 1967, when I was working as a young civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Mississippi, I was asked to testify before the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare’s Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty in Washington about how the War on Poverty was working in the state. I said I had become deeply and increasingly concerned about the growing hunger in the Mississippi Delta. The convergence of hostility toward Black citizens and workers involved in civil rights activities, development of chemical weed killers, farm mechanization, and recent passage of a minimum wage law covering agriculture workers on large farms had resulted in many Black sharecroppers being pushed off their near feudal plantations that no longer needed their cheap labor. Many of them were illiterate and had no skills or income.

Free federal food commodities like cheese, powdered milk, flour, and peanut butter were all that stood between them and hunger and malnutrition – even starvation. I invited the senators to come to Mississippi and hear directly from local people about the crucial and positive impact the anti-poverty program was making and the state’s actions to encourage people to leave. Four of the nine subcommittee members agreed to come: Senators Joseph Clark (D-Penn.), Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), and George Murphy (R-Calif.).

On April 10, 1967, I testified alongside local community leaders at a follow-up hearing held by the Senate subcommittee in Jackson, Mississippi, sharing again the desperate plight of hungry people. I urged the visiting senators to visit the Mississippi Delta with me to see and experience for themselves the hungry poor in our very rich nation, and to visit the shacks and look into the deadened eyes of hungry children with bloated bellies – a level of hunger many people did not believe could exist in America.

Kennedy and Clark responded positively to my plea.

The next day, we were in Cleveland, guided by one of the great unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement – Amzie Moore. We visited homes where Kennedy opened their empty iceboxes and cupboards after asking their permission. I watched him hover, visibly moved over a listless baby boy with bloated belly from whom he tried in vain to get a response as he lightly touched the baby’s cheeks. Outside he asked the older children clad in ragged clothes “What did you have for breakfast?” They said they had not had breakfast yet, although it was nearly noon.

Kennedy and Clark went the next day to see Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman and urged him to “get the food down there” and to eliminate any charges for food stamps for people with no income. The state had changed from free food commodities to food stamps that cost $2, which jobless people did not have.

Freeman did not believe there were people in the U.S. with no income, even after the senators told him they had seen them. The next day, he sent his staff to Mississippi to verify, and Kennedy sent Peter Edelman back with them to lead them through the same desolate shacks to meet desolate families. Kennedy’s pushing, passion and visibility helped activate a range of important people and set in motion a chain of events that led to major activities and reforms being adopted over ensuing months and years.

After sharing my frustration about the slow pace of progress in helping the hungry poor and telling Kennedy I was stopping in Atlanta to see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he told me to tell King to bring the poor to Washington and make poverty and hunger visible in the nation’s capital. When I sat down in King’s modest Auburn Avenue office, he was visibly depressed, but his eyes lit up when I conveyed the Kennedy message.

King launched a Poor People’s Campaign and began planning for it. He convened meetings of the Black, Latino, Native American, and White poor over the ensuing months, and I began planning to move to Washington to serve as federal policy liaison.

Shortly after King’s assassination in April 1968, the Citizens’ Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition released their report Hunger, U.S.A., which identified 282 “hunger counties” in 23 states where emergency action was needed. Another report by the Committee on School Lunch Participation, Their Daily Bread, found “the greater the need of children from a poor neighborhood, the less the community is able to meet it.”

In May 1968, CBS Reports produced a powerful documentary on Hunger in America that shocked and outraged the nation, including showing a malnourished mother giving birth to a severely malnourished dying baby.

The poor returned home bereft after Kennedy’s assassination, but I stayed in Washington and founded the Children’s Defense Fund’s parent organization – the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm created to serve the federal policy demands for the campaign and monitor the implementation of federal laws. We met with President Richard Nixon and his entire Cabinet in the White House and asked for reports on progress made to the campaign’s early demands at federal agencies. Nixon answered most of our queries with his efforts to end the Vietnam War. But in January 1969, the he established the Council on Urban Affairs headed by Pat Moynihan, his Domestic Policy Advisor, which soon affirmed hunger was a major problem, and he released a Special Message to Congress Recommending a Program to End Hunger in America in May. A range of positive follow up policy steps led to the beginning of a series of expansions of the federal food safety net programs that tens of millions depend on today.

The significant progress begun by the Poor People’s Campaign spawned major progress over time and paved the path for the indispensable child and family nutrition safety net today that helps millions of Americans. Later, the Reagan budget proposed to dismantle almost the entire federal safety net and to block grants and dismantle a range of crucial programs for low-income children and families – threats we face again today.

Today, President Trump’s first full budget next month is expected to try to take much of the safety net away again by capping funding, proposing block grants and enacting deep cuts to programs like food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and other nutrition, child and family health supports.

SNAP kept 8.4 million people out of poverty in 2014 and is the most responsive means tested program during economic downturns. The Urban Institute determined in research commissioned for CDF’s 2015 Ending Child Poverty Now reported that an increase in SNAP of about 30 percent, when combined with other modest policy changes, would decrease hunger for an estimated 12.6 million families with children and reduce child poverty 16 percent. It found that the SNAP improvement and other policy reforms could reduce overall child poverty 60 percent and Black child poverty 72 percent for $77.2 billion, less than the cost at the time of closing tax loopholes that allow corporations to dodge $90 billion each year in federal income taxes.

The day he was assassinated, King called his mother with his next sermon, titled Why America May Go to Hell. He warned, “America is going to hell if it didn’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.” I think we are going there fast.

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