Hunger and the budget

A classic example of the difficulties inherent in reducing the federal deficit and at the same time meeting basic human needs is once again shaping up for this session of Congress. Projections of the long-term federal deficit remain high, and some consensus has developed that such deficits will eventually abort economic recovery. Nonetheless, a number of new legislative proposals are being developed to expand the federal budget through expanding federal entitlement programs, particularly in the domestic food assistance area.

The recent polemics surrounding the food-aid debate is understandable, for it is a properly accepted tenet of civilized governments that some minimum standard of nutrition should be enjoyed by all members of the society. The ''hunger'' issue will not only be a major budget issue this year, but also an issue in the 1984 presidential and congressional campaigns.

The recent Presidential Task Force on Domestic Food Assistance left the door open for a protracted debate on this subject. It concluded that recent claims of widespread hunger can neither be positively refuted nor definitively proved. Once again, elected officials will be asked to weigh the costs of expanding public programs when the dimensions of the problem remain unclear.

It is clear that direct federal expenditures and surplus commodities for domestic food assistance programs have continued to grow, from $16.4 billion in the first year of the Reagan administration's term, to over $19.3 billion in 1983. This is the same period characterized by the news media and advocates as one of increasing hunger in America. Rhetoric to the contrary, federal food assistance expenditures have grown at an 8.5 percent annual rate between 1981 and 1983, a rate down from the rapid growth rates of the 1970s, which topped 25 percent a year. But those rates could hardly be sustained on arguments of program, nutrition, or economic efficiency. Changes to the programs as adopted by the Congress in 1980, 1981, and 1982 slowed their rate of growth, but did so by delaying certain cost-of-living updates, modifying and simplifying administrative procedures, and reducing or eliminating benefits for those with incomes above the poverty threshold. In fact, food aid to the poorest recipients did not decline and generally increased.

The task force report has identified some issues that should be addressed and Sen. Robert Dole and I will introduce to this session of Congress legislation that above all else recognizes the basic commitment of our rich nation to provide at least minimal food assistance to all needy people. The legislation tries to balance this goal with the competing objectives of limiting overall federal expenditures and thereby help prevent a future recession that may again precipitate another ''hunger'' crisis.

The legislation will increase food stamp benefits for the working poor, the elderly, and single-parent families. Further, it will provide incentives for state, local and community groups to provide commodity and food assistance to the needy who have chosen, for various reasons, not to participate in the numerous programs developed over the past decade. This latter group has always represented some of the most broken and hurt of our society, the ''twisted spirits,'' as Michael Harrington described them nearly 20 years ago.

The unfortunate truth remains that while governments may be able to better design programs to feed the hungry, the ''hunger'' problem is to a large extent the result of serious underlying social pathologies. Such serious problems are reflected in the increasing number of children found today in single female-headed households, 30 percent of whom live in poverty. It is also reflected in the too frequent number of isolated and lonely elderly people found living in our central cities and rural areas. It is reflected in the growing number of confused young veterans, drug and alcoholic patients, and the deplorable growth in the number of mental health patients now making their homes on the streets.

To address these people's hunger, fundamental changes in our moral commitments will be required, as well as self-examination of our own responsibilities to family, neighbors, and community. Governments may help, but they can only be a part of the solution.

In his latter years, Thomas Jefferson wrote his friend, and earlier enemy, John Adams, ''I hope we shall prove how much happier for man the Quaker policy is that the life of the feeder is better than that of the fighter . . . let this be our office.'' We obviously cannot remove ourselves from budget constraints and the often competing policy objectives that confront us today. But within the imprecise arena of balancing priorities we can heed Jefferson's call to look to our responsibility to provide food assistance to all needy Americans.

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