Ending Child Hunger: A Reminder from Reagan

There is a new report out from a group called Share Our Strength, which has been fighting to end hunger among children since 1984. The report says that child hunger is increasing in America, and makes a strong plea on its website for donations toward its noble cause.

While Share Our Strength is certainly well-intended in its work, their report is not necessarily a reason to immediately start writing checks to them. The first question we ought to ask is: how can children go hungry in America today, the nation that not only has the largest economy in the world but also one of the largest welfare states in the world?

To answer this question, let us go back in time for a moment, all the way back to 1964. That year, Ronald Reagan gave one of his best speeches, titled A Time for Choosing. This speech is significant not because it influenced the politics of the day, but because it laid bare the moral foundation of the ideological struggle of our time – that between freedom and collectivism:

One of Reagan’s key points was that the welfare state never seems to achieve its goals. If the welfare state sets out to eradicate poverty, then should we not also expect the welfare state to, well, eradicate poverty? Here is how Reagan put it (transcript available here):

Well, now, if government planning and welfare had the answer—and they’ve had almost 30 years of it—shouldn’t we expect government to read the score to us once in a while? Shouldn’t they be telling us about the decline each year in the number of people needing help? The reduction in the need for public housing? But the reverse is true. Each year the need grows greater; the program grows greater. … Welfare spending [is] 10 times greater than in the dark depths of the Depression. We’re spending 45 billion dollars on welfare. Now do a little arithmetic, and you’ll find that if we divided the 45 billion dollars up equally among those 9 million poor families, we’d be able to give each family 4,600 dollars a year. And this added to their present income should eliminate poverty. Direct aid to the poor, however, is only running only about 600 dollars per family. It would seem that someplace there must be some overhead. … Now do they honestly expect us to believe that if we add 1 billion dollars to the 45 billion we’re spending, one more program to the 30-odd we have—and remember, this new program doesn’t replace any, it just duplicates existing programs—do they believe that poverty is suddenly going to disappear by magic?

This is a very well worded way of saying that the Emperor has no clothes. The welfare state is not the benevolent caretaker of people that it pretends to be. On the contrary, wherever big government goes it traps people in more dependency and deprives even more people of their ability to support themselves.

With this in mind, let us return to the report on child hunger from Share Our Strength and the following news story from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette:

Seven out of 10 Arkansas teachers regularly see students arrive to school without having gotten enough to eat at home, according to a report on child hunger released Thursday. Nationally, three in five teachers see hunger in the classroom, according to the nationwide survey of 1,000 kindergarten through eighth-grade schoolteachers by Share Our Strength, a Washington, D.C.-based group with the goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. “I have had students who come to school and haven’t eaten since lunch the day before,” Kim Wilson, Arkansas Teacher of the Year 2012 and teacher at Monticello High School, told Share Our Strength. “Hungry students simply can’t focus and learn. Fifty-six percent of Arkansas teachers say the hunger problem is growing, the report says, with 71% of the surveyed teachers in the state saying that “a lot” or “most” of their students rely on school meals as their primary nutrition source.

Like every other state, Arkansas receives money from Uncle Sam for a long list of federally sponsored programs. Part of that money goes to core welfare programs aimed at putting food on the table of poor families. The Department of Agriculture has something called the Food and Nutrition Service that runs, e.g., the food stamp program – no known as SNAP – and the supplementary food program called WIC.

In 2006 Arkansas got $235.6 million in federal funds for these programs, which is spread out among 487,000 poor Arkansans. In 2010 The Natural State received $317.4 million, an increase by 34.7 percent in four short years. But while Federal Aid to States for food nutrition programs went up by more than a third, the number of poor in Arkansas – declined! In 2010 the state had 445,000 poor, a drop by 8.6 percent.

Counted per poor person, the federal food nutrition assistance in Arkansas has increased by a whopping 47 percent in four short years. In the meantime, food prices have gone up less than ten percent, which makes Reagan’s question about the so called war on poverty even more urgent today than it was back in 1964.

The truth is, of course, that government neither can nor wants to end poverty. Its so called poverty relief programs serve two long-term purposes: they trap people in dependency on government (something that radical statists actually think is desirable) and they create scores of bureaucrat jobs for do-gooders to fill and live well off.

The question is what happens the day the federal government has to make harsh cuts to its Federal Aid to States program. What will the states do then? Are they willing to shield themselves from this looming fiscal disaster by phasing themselves out federal funds? Are they willing to put structural reforms to work that allow private solutions to the poverty relief problem? Or are they going to stick their heads in the federally provided sand and pretend that America will never hit the austerity iceberg?