In April 1967 Robert Kennedy and other members of a Senate subcommittee investigating poverty in America traveled to the Mississippi Delta country to have a firsthand look. They drove in a caravan of cars to Bolivar County north of Greenville, where they found a small community amid cotton fields. It was a collection of shacks surrounding an earthen courtyard where the women washed clothes in tubs. There were few men of working age, little food in anyone’s refrigerators, no indoor plumbing.
Changes in the wage laws had brought to a close the practice of sharecropping, which had been a form of quasi-servitude that had prevailed for a century. As a result, poverty had worsened. In those Delta villages, children suffered the diseases of malnutrition. The children Kennedy saw were happy to shake his hand, but they were ragged and filthy. The women who were watching over them were in poor health and prematurely aged.
It was a visit to the Third World. America at the time was beginning to realize that poverty was a fact of life even in a land of riches and opportunity. And poverty was not unique to African-Americans in the Delta. Impoverished white populations in Appalachia and elsewhere also came to the attention of the nation. Conditions in urban slums flared up into deadly riots in Los Angeles, Detroit and elsewhere. An influential book at the time called “The Other America” showed Americans the reality of what, properly considered, was not another America. It was America, and it would no longer be ignored.
One of the outcomes of Kennedy’s investigations was the food stamp program. Poor children — in Mississippi or in New York City — would not be allowed to suffer malnutrition. It was an embrace of one of Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — the freedom from want. It was the charitable response of a national community to the shocking reality of economic injustice.
Political support for food stamps persisted over the years because it was the responsibility of the Agriculture Department, and so its appropriations became part of the farm bill. The farm bill authorizes farm support programs, such as subsidies for cotton, corn and soybeans and price supports for dairy farmers. Farmers understood that poor people would be able to consume the products of American farms if they had food stamps in their hands.
Thus, liberals of the old school — George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey — supported the farm bill in part because it covered the cost of food stamps — but conservatives from farm country supported it, too, because it maintained support for farmers.
This week Republicans in the U.S. House trashed this long history. They had failed previously to pass a farm bill because they had trashed the alliance of interests that made a farm bill possible. They did so by slashing spending on food stamps so deeply that as many as 3 million Americans, half of them children, stood to lose nutritional support. In addition, some conservatives bolted because they opposed continued spending on subsidies for farmers.
The Republican response to this failure was to pass a farm bill this week that excluded food stamps altogether. As one Republican congressman said, Republicans had decided to eliminate “extraneous” portions of the bill.
Democrats responded with fury. “Kids going to bed hungry at night in this nation is extraneous?” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro.
“The 47 million people who are on (food stamps) are not extraneous,” said Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.
Dysfunction in the Republican House has reached a new low. Not only have Republican members decided not to take up comprehensive immigration reform, now they have sent an unequivocal message on food policy: billions in subsidies for farmers; zero for poor people.
Robert Kennedy was murdered 14 months after helping to shine a spotlight on the gross injustice of poverty in America. Over the years we have spent billions to help put food in the refrigerators of poor families. Far from extraneous, it has been crucial to our nation’s well-being.