Politics of hunger

Even the title of President Reagan's hunger commission - the Task Force on Food Assistance - reflected White House sensitivity to the political energy aroused by the nutritional needs of America's have-less population.

We've heard plenty of surface static on the issue. Presidential counselor Edwin Meese's remark that there was only ''anecdotal evidence'' of hunger was widely taken as an example of Reagan administration indifference to those who are not making it in American society. Sen. Edward Kennedy countered with the assertion of ''clear, undeniable, and authoritative evidence'' of hunger in America, issuing his own report and proposing a $2.5 billion program that would, among other things, increase food-stamp benefits by 10 percent and offer home delivery of meals to the elderly.

Now the Reagan report is actually out. It acknowledges the ''sad truth'' that ''there is hunger in America,'' while repeating the Meese assessment that the problem cannot be measured precisely. Most notably, the Reagan report proposes converting federal food-aid programs to block grants to the states, keeping total aid about the same, but keying it to shifts in food costs and state unemployment levels. The proposal is opposed by governor and mayoral organization leaders, who fear the end of national assistance standards. Supporters stress their desire for less federal control of state decisions.

In practical terms, the task force's recommendations are not binding. President Reagan can thank the task force and leave it at that. He can include the recommendations in his budget; if so, it would suggest close cooperation all along, since time is short before the budget's release. But significant proposals would require legislation; and hunger, although getting media attention, does not carry the action imperative of, say, social security reform in Washington.

The plight of today's impoverished cannot be dismissed. Anecdotal or not, reports such as those of the Massachusetts Salvation Army of dramatic increases in the demand for meals (a 42 percent rise in the first nine months of 1983 over the same period in 1982) call for attention.

Still, the hunger issue carries a broader implication beyond the needs of individuals, that should be addressed.

There is an emerging faultline in US politics.

A majority of those whose family income totals over $20,000 a year feel things are getting better for themselves and the country. A majority of the under-$20,000 group think the country is headed down the wrong track, that budget policies have caused serious hardship. The upbeat over-$20,000 group trust Reagan and the Republicans to do a better job handling the country's problems. The under-$20,000 trust the Democrats.

''Economically, income disparities have grown during the Reagan years - in part as the natural effect of cutting taxes and domestic programs,'' observes Michael Barone, editor of the Almanac of American Politics. ''For 1984 they have resulted in an economic polarization of the electorate greater than any we have seen in 20 years. High-income support for Reagan is pretty solid, but low-income opposition is vehement - and growing, because so many low-income Americans are registering to vote . . . against the President and his party.''

Optimism among the relatively affluent favors incumbents like Reagan. Ironically, as Barone points out, it also tends to help front-runners like Walter Mondale. ''Voters who are generally satisfied with things are less likely to be in the market for alternative long-shot candidates,'' he says.

Affluence enables many Americans to choose the style of life they want. It leads to greater diversity and social tolerance - but also to greater ignorance of how many of their fellow Americans live.

On the downside, hunger becomes a prism for refracting often complex political attitudes that have more to do with a sense of economic class or social options than with food needs per se. Younger women working at jobs tend to look at politics quite differently from over-55 married women who are not working. ''The former vote almost like blacks, the latter almost like men,'' Barone observes.

Reagan advisers have tried to keep some distance between the President and the hunger issue. It calls attention to the conviction of many that the progress of the past three years has been unevenly spread.

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