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Starving in America

Paul Ryan’s “Better Way” is reheated Herbert Hoover

In the late seventeenth century, the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather laid out a vision for America in a fiery sermon: “For those who indulge themselves in idleness,” he told his congregation, “the express command of God unto us is, that we should let them starve.” Nearly three hundred years since Mather’s death, this austere principle of his Calvinism has found a new expression in the top rungs of American government, where Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, has laid out a plan both to decrease idleness and increase starvation in the form of his “Better Way.”  

Most public alarm has focused, justly, on the Trumpian chaos in our nation’s highest office, but with Republican control of both the executive and the legislative branch, some Democrats are readying defenses against what Ezra Klein, at Vox, has called “a war on the poor.” Ryan has already suggested extensive cuts to Medicare, advocating “letting market competition work” on the healthcare of seniors.

His “Better Way” plan is as ambitious as its blue-eyed messenger. In the name of a more “confident” and “bold” America, it constitutes a comprehensive restructuring—and dismantling—of benefits on a scale that dwarfs Clintonian welfare reform. A throughline in Ryan’s plan is a principle that Mather might have approved of: pervasive and draconian work requirements. These extend beyond those who receive direct cash assistance to other programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which aids twenty-eight million Americans yearly to purchase nutritious food. In this fashion, the Speaker claims, he will aid Americans in poverty to “make the most of their lives.” A “Better Way” factsheet implores supporters to “Reward Work,” informing us that “an increasing number of SNAP recipients are work-capable adults,” and lamenting, falsely, that “most welfare programs do not actually require or even encourage work.”

The number of hungry children in America would rise dramatically under the “Way” we are encouraged to believe is “Better.”

And yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture states that “Among households that include someone who is able to work, more than 75 percent had a job in the year before or after receiving SNAP”; the program already levies “special work requirements” on able-bodied adults without dependents. A 2015 study from the University of California at Berkeley, which analyzed welfare recipients in all fifty states, found that low and stagnant wages were the primary cause of families turning to public assistance, concluding that “taxpayers bear a significant portion of the hidden costs of low-wage work in America.” Here, the American assumption that poverty is a condition solely of the idle shows both its cruelty and its flawed logic: if SNAP benefits are harshly cut, it is those who already work, but cannot make ends meet, who will suffer. Not only do the low wages of labor shift responsibility from corporate pockets to the public purse, they create an incentive to vilify the poor for economic conditions that are not of their own making.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan think tank on fiscal policy, estimates that cuts to SNAP under Ryan’s budget might surpass $100 billion. And despite the “Better Way” focus on work-capable adults, a U.S. Census report on poverty from 2014 indicated that without SNAP, poverty among Americans under eighteen would rise 21.3 percent. Which means, in less bureaucratic language, that the number of hungry children in America would rise dramatically under the “Way” we are encouraged to believe is “Better.” Ryan himself once famously deplored the school lunch program, which was initially developed during the Great Depression, saying that children without home-packed lunches are deficient in parental love.

To the food historian Andrew Coe, co-author with Jane Ziegelman of A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, the brittle, peppy ethos of the “Better Way” recalls another period in American history wherein Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the Presidency: the administration of Herbert Hoover. “A Square Meal” depicts with chilling precision Hoover’s decision to decline to give direct food aid to those starving in the early years of the Depression, under the principle, first articulated by President Grover Cleveland, that “though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people.”

“The moral condemnation of idleness, which goes through the history of the U.S., you can still see it in today’s Republican Congress,” Coe said in a recent interview. “It’s a very hard-hearted, self-centered viewpoint, but it’s definitely part of the dark side of American culture.”

During the Hoover era, the president dined from gold-plated dishes while sharecroppers in the South starved in their shacks, and breadlines threaded through American streets. Coe and Ziegelman portray Hoover as a president caught in the grips of ideology, unwilling to change his policies in response to the dire needs of his citizens. While farmers in Arkansas rioted for food in 1931, Hoover recoiled at the prospect of a direct food aid bill, while a supporter of his in Congress, James Tilson, predicted that “the idle and shiftless will accept it as a gift, dismiss any attempt at repayment, and live off the Federal Government as long as the opportunity exists.”

The narrative that Ryan depicts is distinguishable from Tilson’s vociferous disgust for the “shiftless” only in its blander rhetoric.

The narrative that Ryan depicts is distinguishable from Tilson’s vociferous disgust for the “shiftless” only in its blander rhetoric. The “Better Way” offers a paper-thin veneer of narrative—the notion that work requirements are a form of necessary encouragement to the loafing indigent—to cover its essential harshness, what Coe describes as “the streak of cruelty” that stretches from Mather to Hoover to the current Republican party. What the welfare debate requires is a counter-narrative: one that posits, with more forceful, open, and accurate moral rhetoric, but the same urgency, that no one should starve in the wealthiest country in the world.

But this plainly obvious moral truth is not enough, since condemnation of poverty, and the attendant conflation of poverty with poor character, has deep roots in the American character, and therefore demands a deracination of great vigor. We must decouple poverty from moral failure, lack of work from shiftlessness, need from parasitism. The mealy-mouthed, Randian platitudes of the “Better Way” mask an extraordinary failure of compassion, and a willingness to ignore the reality of those who want to work yet suffer from starvation in homes from coast to coast.

One of the classic images of Thanksgiving is Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want,” painted in 1942, depicting a middle-class white family smiling broadly around a plump turkey. By then, the Depression had finally ebbed, and American manufacturing swelled thanks to the war effort. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had already smashed nineteenth-century ideas of what the government was good for, and prosperity was on the rise. In the midst of the Second World War, Rockwell posited that the right not to starve was a fundamental American value—one that our soldiers were fighting for.

But even in this time of plenty, when unemployment sank to 2 percent from its Depression height of twenty-five, there was still misfortune in a country of teeming millions, and still those who lacked that essential freedom from want. “The thing about hunger in America,” Coe told me, “is that there’s no magic bullet. There will always be hungry people in America, and there always have been.” We need to contend with this reality with ingenuity.