The return of hunger to America

Americans are starving. In Oakland, Calif., relief officials are feeding 20, 000 people a day - but 40,000 go hungry. In Denver and other communities relief agencies are turning the hungry back into the streets because food is in short supply.

The situation is so grave that the US Conference of Mayors declared this summer hunger as the No. 1 problem facing American cities.

But after 21/2 years of economic and nutrition policies that have left millions unemployed and starving, Ronald Reagan now talks of being perplexed about increasing hunger in America. And voila! The President appoints yet another commission.

To top it off, this commission is not designed merely to sidestep an issue, but to ransack needed programs. Dr. George Graham of Johns Hopkins University - one of the commission's ''expert'' appointees - told Congress this past year that the greatest threat to the health of low-income people lies in overnutrition. With evidence to the contrary abounding, he is on record as saying the Women, Infants, and Children feeding program (WIC) is wasteful and unneeded.

President Reagan and I are both old enough to remember the horrors of hunger in America. We saw it in the depression. And when I was elected to the Senate in 1966, some people were still starving to death in this most prosperous of nations. The diets of millions were so inadequate that they had no chance to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty into which they were born.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, many of my colleagues in Congress fought to establish programs to attack this national disgrace. Now President Reagan, despite his disclaimers, is trying to turn back the clock.

* Item: A recent report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office revealed as nonsense the longstanding White House assertion that no one with an income below 130 percent of the poverty line has been cut from nutrition programs. In truth, only one-tenth of the budget savings made in the food stamp program in the last two years came from eliminating the so-called ''affluent'' poor. Well over half the reductions came from the tables of households existing below the poverty line. The administration's most recent food stamp budget would cut the benefits of 62 percent of all food stamp recipients, or 4.6 million households. Eighty-seven percent of these cuts would be borne by households with incomes below the poverty line. Even the thousands with incomes below half the poverty line - less than $5,000 per year for a family of four and $2,500 for an elderly person living alone - would be forced to bear further cuts.

* Item: The administration is proposing to cut an extra $300 million a year from child nutrition programs. This comes on top of the $1.5 billion in deep cuts made in school-lunch and other child nutrition programs in 1981. Over 90 percent of the federal funds in these programs go for meals to feed low-income children.

* Item: In addition to the $1.4 billion cut made in the food stamp program in 1983, and $4.4 billion more scheduled for 1984-85, the administration has failed to adjust for inflation the strict assets tests established for food stamps in 1971 by the Nixon administration - when the dollar was worth more than twice as much. Households not permitted to collect food stamps in 1971 if they had more than $1,500 in countable assets are today ineligible if they possess only $630 in assets, in 1971 dollars.

* Item: Because of the combined effects of the long recession and Reagan cuts in the unemployment insurance program, only 40 percent of the unemployed now receive unemployment benefits - compared with two-thirds who had benefits during the 1975 recession. And because of the aforementioned restrictions on obtaining food stamps, the long-vanquished terror for the unemployed of not being able to feed their families is returning.

* Item: The administration has continued to push for cuts in the WIC program that would terminate food aid to more than 600,000 low-income pregnant women, infants, and children starting next year. This in the face of a Harvard School of Public Health study showing that for every dollar spent on pregnant women through WIC, three dollars are saved in government-subsidized medical costs. When we cut programs like WIC we are increasing health costs, special-education costs, and even criminal-justice costs - not to mention the human cost of failing to feed poor starving children.

The success of WIC and other such programs through the 1970s made me dream that someday there would be no more hunger in America. But President Reagan's shortsighted budget slashing has deferred the dream and the economy as well. And his policies also have cut short the futures of many in our next generation.

If this President wants to know the problems of hunger, he needs to look no further than the Oval Office and reflect on the policies of his administration. It is time that you, Mr. President, started taking responsibility for the results of your own policies.

A nation cannot long stand on the shoulders of citizens weakened by malnutrition.

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