City Lit: Nuts to Soup

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Add this to the list of pitches in the New York charity scene: Time-Warner cable TV subscribers got a solicitation with their monthly bill headlined: “The answer to hunger in New York isn’t food.” Think maybe the answer is income? Wrong, says the ad, “It’s trucks.”

It’s a ridiculous answer, and that’s why the ad catches your eye. But Janet Poppendieck’s new book, Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlements uses the same logic. She critiques the “hunger industry,” the network of soup kitchens, food banks and pantries. But ultimately, like the ad, she buries the truth-poor people need money to survive, not food pantries, caseworkers or trucks.

She claims the industry helps people, when even her own spin can’t hide its failures. Soup kitchens mostly serve single men, and not reliably; food pantries do serve women and children, but they mostly distribute commercial cast-offs, and may serve one family only three or four times a year. She says the food distribution industry, understanding its limitations, has begun to couple service delivery with advocacy for more jobs and more benign welfare administration. Ho, hum.

As the cable TV solicitation demonstrates, those who have institutionalized the begging sites still serve their own interests first. I call them the Table Scraps Are a Right crowd (or TSARists)-the alliance of food bankers, politicians, advocates and donors that would replace the right to a livelihood with the right to eat leftovers. With the TSARists running things, money that could be spent on food goes to trucks, refrigerators and salaries for hunger industry workers, halting the political momentum that would get poor families what they actually want and need-like the dignity of guaranteed income to choose their own relief via grocery stores.

Poppendieck thrusts the sword but fails to gore the responsible ox. Instead, she blames Republicans alone for problems that the left helped cause.

Her findings are similar to those in my 1993 book, “Tyranny of Kindness,” which critiques the poverty industry. She repeats the story of how, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the TSARists got agribusiness to donate unsellables. Food bankers would pick up, disperse and certify as tax-deductible every last pound. Only about one-fifth of this is “nutritionally desirable.” Another fifth is inedible or unusable. The remaining three-fifths is junk food and other junk-MSG, diet soda, hair conditioner.

One could easily conclude that few poor people-if any-get enough actual food from this inefficient system to stay alive. Poppendieck, however, avoids logical conclusions.

She knows, for instance, that TSARists share blame for the decimation of programs like Aid to Families With Dependent Children, which their politician President Bill Clinton wiped out. AFDC distributed income, not garbage, and as recently as 1975 it actually lifted some families above poverty.

In Poppendieck’s revisionist view, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Pat Robertson et al. are the culprits for AFDC’s decline. Not so fast.

Ever since President Johnson’s Great Society, social programs have failed to end poverty-precisely because they provide services instead of adequate income. After all, poor people can’t eat caseworkers. Nixon’s plan for guaranteed income was voted down by a coalition of both left- and right-wing politicians in 1972. Since then, the liberal left has stuck to redefining services, hoping to secure bigger government contracts for themselves and ignoring the ceaseless tumble in the purchasing power of welfare benefits.

By the time Ronald Reagan took office, poor people had become irrelevant to both political parties. Providers were a constituency the Dems could count on, and Republicans were pleased to get away with compassion on the cheap. The emboldened right promoted privatization and volunteerism while scrapping entitlements. Players in the hunger industry eagerly responded-especially when government dollars sweetened their pot. It was 1994 before Gingrich controlled the House, and Robertson played TSAR with a food distribution network of his own.

This book’s fractured facts culminate in Poppendieck’s “most optimistic scenario” for the next millennium:

“I envision turning our kitchens and pantries into free spaces, where people can meet and interact across [class and race] not as givers and receivers…but as neighbors…. Anyone in need could earn dinner tickets by helping with food preparation or with clean-up. Imagine the discussions that might take place…”

Yeah, dress ’em in cast-offs, clean ’em up and turn ’em into servants who will be expected to cook, clean up and entertain in exchange for food.

Poppendieck offers no forward thinking for a just alternative to the problem of inequality in this country. It seems to me that she and other TSARists could assess the political and human aftermath of their triumph, eliminate the rationalizations, gut their businesses, and harness some of the enormous good will and plain old resources they draw on to seek and fight for more just solutions.

In the meantime, instead of whipping out that year-end check for the helping hands, find a way to do good with your money. Get some cash directly to the people who really need it-the poor. Forget about the tax deduction: This year, give to give. Because the real answer to poverty is income.

Theresa Funiciello is a New York political theorist and activist concerned with income distribution.

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