In 1976, U.S. Senator Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, was considered so conservative that he was added to the GOP ticket as the vice-presidential nominee to balance the perceived moderate Gerald Ford.
So it was not surprising that, when arch-liberal South Dakota Senator George McGovern, a Democrat, started pushing for field hearings on U.S. hunger, Dole skeptically believed that McGovern was exaggerating the problem to advance his presidential ambitions.
But later Dole recounted, “After three or four field hearings, I was convinced we had a real problem.” Dole then teamed up with McGovern to create modern the Food Stamp Program, now called SNAP, declaring: “This is not a partisan matter.”
These historic developments are noteworthy, not only because they saved tens of millions of Americans from severe malnutrition, but also because a major politician admitted that he changed his mind after learning new facts—a rare occurrence in contemporary politics.
Dole and McGovern were not alone. Other leading Republicans, including Jacob Javits, an U.S. Senator from New York, also played crucial roles in fighting for increased federal funding to fight domestic hunger, as did Shirley Chisholm, a Democratic Congresswoman from Brooklyn.
When the two sides of the political divide united to create food stamps and other significant nutrition benefits, that cemented in the public mind the notion that hunger was one issue that bridged partisan differences.
But in the decades that followed, domestic hunger became an intensely partisan issue, with the GOP working consistently to rip down the food safety net that Dole and Javits had helped create.
In the 1980s, even though most food stamps recipients were white (as they are today), President Reagan race-baited the issue, decrying “strapping young bucks” using food stamps to get T-bone steaks. Reagan then proposed taking billions of dollars away from the program, and even tried to cut school lunches and label ketchup a vegetable.
Later, during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, virtually all Republicans voted against their budget and stimulus proposals that included food aid increases.
There have been some Republican exceptions. George W. Bush’s Administration – including his USDA Under Secretary, Eric Bost, who oversaw domestic nutrition assistance programs – generally supported the food safety net (and even helped get some food benefits restored to legal immigrants), despite fierce opposition from G.O.P. House leaders like Tom Delay. A few Senate Republicans have blocked even more massive cuts in food aid. Some Republican governors have supported limited anti-hunger initiatives, especially those aimed at children.
Yet the main domestic thrust of the G.O.P. since the 1980’s has been to give gargantuan tax cuts to the rich, and then pay for them by trying to gut the broader anti-poverty safety net – all the while mostly opposing minimum wage hikes. After cash assistance was effectively dismantled in the 1990’s by welfare reform, much of the G.O.P. falsely characterized food assistance as “welfare,” demonizing and race-baiting food stamps recipients.
In 2012, leading Republicans New Gingrich and Rick Santorum both implied that Black people were uniquely dependent on food stamps. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney falsely attacked President Obama on food stamps work requirements.
When Republican Paul Ryan served in leadership positions in the House (as Budget Committee Chair, GOP Leader, then Speaker), he consistently pushed to slash food benefits, claiming that government programs that aided people in poverty are a “hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” (Of course, Ryan neglected to mention that he had personally received government cash assistance – in the form of Social Security Survivors’ Benefits – after his father died and that he had been on government payrolls virtually his entire adult life.)
In 2018, when the Ryan-led House voted to take billions of dollars’ worth of food from millions of SNAP recipients, not a single House Democrat voted for the bill, but 86 percent of House Republicans did.
When the Senate voted a few days later on an amendment to enact similar cuts, not one Democrat voted for the cuts. But even though Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, opposed the cuts, fully 60 percent of Senate Republicans supported them. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even switched his position in the middle of voting to support the reductions.
Republicans often claim to support food banks, soup kitchens, food pantries, food rescue groups, and the “faith-based armies of compassion,” but the dollop of extra funds they provide to them is dwarfed by the massive dollars they seek to slash from government programs.
I believe that the main reason that the GOP has dropped its support of the nutrition safety net has been a misguided effort to appease “its base,” trying to convince their voters that such programs only help some unnamed “other,” despite the reality that red states benefit most from these programs.
The facts are incontrovertible: Most Democrats in Congress support increasing hunger funding—and virtually all oppose cutting it—while the vast majority of House Republicans, and most Senate Republicans, support such reductions. Hunger is now as partisan as gun control and abortion.
Then why do some nonprofit anti-hunger groups still persist in publicly repeating the long-outdated assertion that the issue is nonpartisan? Some do not want to turn off conservative donors. Some misconstrue the federal prohibitions on nonprofits taking partisan stances in electoral campaigns, incorrectly believing that those rules also ban organizations from pointing out factual partisan patterns in legislative activities. Some believe that, if they assert bi-partisan goals for anti-hunger policy frequently enough, then Republicans will take the hint and revert to their past practices of supporting the nutrition safety net.
Yet I think the largest reason why many hunger groups—as well as much of the media and the general public—still believe that hunger is a bipartisan issue is psychological: they simply can’t allow themselves to believe that one side is so craven that it actually votes to increase hunger. It’s simply too painful for Americans to allow themselves to acknowledge that anyone is pro-hunger.
In contrast, Hunger Free America believes we need to hold all our leaders accountable, by name. In the past, we’ve called out Democratic officials, including President Obama, whom we thought hadn’t done enough to fight hunger. Now, we’re pushing Senate Democrats, including allies such as New York’s Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, to fight even harder to enact larger federal food aid hikes in response to our current hunger crisis.
But we also we reject false equivalency. It is our duty to explain to the public that the main reason hunger is now soaring nationwide is the opposition of President Trump and other Republican leaders to a large boost in government food assistance. That’s we’ve just launched a nationwide digital billboard and social media “Hunger Clock” campaign to make it crystal clear that the current GOP Senate majority, led by Senator Mitch McConnell, is now holding up more than $16 billion dollars in food aid already passed by the U.S. House Democratic majority.
Hunger was, and should again be, a nonpartisan issue. But we can’t make that true simply by wishing it to be so. We need to publicly hold responsible any leaders who make their fellow Americans hungrier.
Joel Berg is CEO of Hunger Free America, a national, non-partisan, direct service and advocacy nonprofit organization that is headquartered in New York City.