A caring nation

IN recent months the focus of hunger has been on Ethiopia, the Sudan, and other parts of Africa. Hunger, most Americans felt, existed largely ``over there.'' It turns out that this is not accurate. Hunger, a new report tells Americans, is very much in their midst: Up to 20 million Americans are hungry at least some part of every month, the report concludes.

This is the most carefully researched, nationwide study of hunger in recent years. It gives perspective to what had previously been an emotional and often contentious political debate, bereft of national figures. Previously there had existed only localized reports, often with few statistics, of hunger in various cities.

In much of Africa, drought, coupled with government policies, resulted in a dramatic drop in domestic food production. Many African nations have far too little home-grown food to feed their hungry.

In America the situation is quite different. There is no widespread famine, as exists in Africa. But hunger does exist in the United States, and amid plenty: The nation's food bins are overflowing. Overproduction of food has been a national problem for decades in the US, the world's largest exporter of food.

The current American situation substantially mirrors what existed during the 1960s, when studies documented substantial hunger in the rural South. Then Americans responded. Led by the federal government, they moved forcefully to wipe out hunger.

Now as then, the existence of widespread hunger in America is inexcusable: A nation that can feed its hungry must feed them. The situation demands prompt action.

The new report, a year-long study by the Physician Task Force on Hunger in America, says that hunger in the United States stems primarily from a combination of two sources: Some Americans have not been able to climb out of the recent recession; at the same time, the Reagan administration has cut back on social programs that provide additional income or food to the poor and near-poor. As a consequence, 35 million Americans now have incomes below the federal poverty line, defined as an annual income of $10,178 for a family of four.

In the early centuries of the United States, the needy were aided by individuals and local government; the federal government was not involved. In this century Washington began to play a role during the severe depression of the 1930s, and it substantially expanded that role through the Great Society program of President Johnson in the 1960s.

For the past four years the Reagan administration has been trying to reduce the federal role in domestic social welfare programs and hand back to individuals, private charities, and communities an increasing portion of responsibility for aiding the needy.

In any such major change, the rate of transition is especially important. In this case, change has come faster than many localities and individuals could cope with. Some people have not been able to adjust to the diminution of government aid, inasmuch as it has not been fully supplanted by other sources. Particularly vulnerable have been the aged, and those lacking in education or spirit.

Over the past two years private assistance to the hungry has been more generous than in several decades, with a particularly heartening response in many hard-hit communities.

Yet each American, and government at every level, should respond with action to the new information. The United States has long been a caring nation; the caring now should be focused on healing this domestic problem. Individuals who can help more than in the past should do so, by contributing funds or time to charities that aid the needy. Community organizations should aid. So should local and state governments.

On the national level, Congress and the administration should weigh very carefully the continued dismantling of federal programs. Too many people have fallen through the much-discussed safety net.

It is time for the most powerful nation in the world to show that it also is a caring nation. ----30{et

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