Sharing bread with the hungry stranger - is there an alternative?

Over the years, most of the ''experts'' about women have been men, most of the ''experts'' about labor have been middle-class professionals, most of the ''experts'' about retirement have been in their working prime, and so on. Why should we be surprised that most of the experts on hunger have been well fed?

Lately the experts have been assuring us that the hungry are not really hungry. The secretary of agriculture slummed very briefly on a food stamps diet , and, while he and his family did not quite smack their lips, the impression given was that they were more or less tastily nourished. Then Ed Meese made his famous remark about freeloaders at soup kitchens, following it up with the quip that Bob Cratchit and all the Little Cratchits weren't really hungry, either. Scrooge just got a bad press.

Something like this appears to be the emphasis of the Task Force on Food Assistance.If any of the ''truly needy'' still exist, adequate ''safety nets'' are already in place, but, says the report, ''allegations of rampant hunger simply cannot be documented.''

It is a curious fact. Any number of experts will tell us exactly how many nuclear warheads the Soviets possess, but when it comes to the hungry in our own midst, the data are ''soft.'' We just don't know.

Nobody should take cheap shots in order to assume a posture of moral superiority. Where hunger is concerned, there really ought to be no partisanship. ''A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization,'' Dr. Johnson wrote, and surely nobody disputes the point. Yet it does seem a trivialization to reduce the argument to banal statistics: How many are hungry? How hungry are they?

It is hard to explain the ups and downs our answers to these questions take. Sometimes we have overestimated hunger, just as now we may be underestimating it. In the '60s, for instance, when the Great Society set the prevailing mood, we suddenly saw the ''invisible poor'' everywhere.

Now, a short 18 years or so later, we have swung back to asking, a little defiantly, ''Poor? What poor?'' and muttering about the futility of solving any social problems - if they exist - by ''throwing money'' at them.

In her book ''The Idea of Poverty,' published the same week as the task force report, Gertrude Himmelfarb has used England in the early years of the Industrial Age to illustrate our longstanding confusions on the subject of dire human need, stressing by her title how much it is, in fact, a matter of perception.

At various times, she suggests, we have subscribed to all of the following contradictory theories:

- The poor and hungry are part of God's order, being punished for original sin.

- The poor and hungry are lazy or incompetent or both. They have earned their lot, just as the rich and well fed have earned theirs.

- The poor and hungry are victims of a stacked deck - a ''class'' system ensuring that the poor will get poorer and the rich will get richer.

Was ever a human predicament described so differently? And the solutions proposed have been equally at odds. At moments, philanthropy has been thought to be all that is required. John Wesley, making the argument for the sufficiency of the ''private sector,'' enjoined his congregations: ''Gain all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.''

On the other hand, the embryonic concept of the ''welfare state'' dates all the way back to the Elizabethan Poor Laws.

It has been maintained that hunger could be abolished by providing the poor with a minimum income. Could any solution be simpler? Well, yes - the even more extreme notion that, if the poor were made miserable enough, they would disappear like harassed rats. This pseudo-solution Thomas Carlyle called the ''rat-catchers'' remedy.

Perhaps all these confusions indicate how deeply we feel, whether we admit it or not. We may talk tough about the ''survival of the fittest'' and, in the name of realism, divide the world into winners and losers. But the rich man, dining elegantly, loses his appetite at the sight of the pinched face pressing against the window.

''Am I my brother's keeper?'' The question haunts most people more than any other. It refuses to go away. We are simply not built to be as selfish as we might like to be. The option of indifference is not really open to us.

The debate may go on about how many, and how hungry.But, in the end, we have to give the benefit of the doubt - sharing bread with the stranger as an act of faith. What choice do we have? If others go hungry and we cannot convince ourselves that we made at least an effort, it is something in us that starves.

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