Hunger returns to Capitol Hill

DEBATE over the extent of hunger in America - and what else to do about it - may be about to shift from newspapers and television to Congress. The vehicle is food stamps, the controversial subsidizing by government of the foodstuffs purchased by eligible poor citizens.

Two hearings on the food-stamp program are scheduled this week by the Senate Agriculture Committee, with the emphasis on allegations of fraud and the question of whether federal funding should be decreased. Several Senate Democrats are discussing whether to propose an increase in the amount of money the government spends in food stamps.

Republican Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas already has circulated the draft of a similar proposal among several of his colleagues. And in the House Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D) of California has introduced a measure to restore a larger amount, some $1 billion.

This being an election year, politics inevitably will be involved in the congressional debate. Yet it is important that the decision be based on merit.

The Reagan administration points out that last year the federal government spent $19.3 billion for its food programs, and that 24 million Americans were helped by food stamps. Both figures are all-time highs.

Yet many who deal with the poor insist, as they have for months, that more is needed, that hunger indeed exists in the United States.

It is important that Congress examine all sides of the question in its oversight and legislative hearings.

Questions that need to be examined fully include these: Can cost savings be made in the food-stamp program, as the Grace commission has recommended, without harming the poor who genuinely need food stamps? Can means be found to identify and eliminate fraud - and to determine how much exists?

In addition, is the need of the poor such that the January recommendations of the President's task force should be followed and modest increases in food-stamp benefits be voted? Is the need sufficient that an increase is required along the lines of Representative Panetta's $1 billion annually?

At this point most of the legislative initiative is on the side of increases. Finding the right level of needed increase should not be put off because this is an election year.

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