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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Hype About Hunger

Culture Poverty & Welfare

The Federal entitlement bureaucrats are in despair at their shrinking empire. First, the 1996 welfare law made work a prerequisite for cash assistance. Now the latest bad news: people are shunning food stamps. Since 1996, the food stamp rolls have dropped nearly 30 percent, more than the decrease in official poverty. Many former welfare recipients are deciding to go it on their own.

This move toward self-sufficiency should be cause for celebration. Instead, the food stamp bureaucracy and its supporters in Congress are determined to snuff it out. The Agriculture Department has begun an advertising blitz promoting food stamps; Representatives William J. Coyne of Pennsylvania and Sander M. Levin of Michigan have introduced legislation that would pay community groups to do stamp “outreach.”

Predictably, the advocates have trotted out the most powerful appeal to buttress their case for expanding the rolls. “Kids are going hungry,” announced Representative Levin on ABC News. Hunger “is actually getting worse,” warned Representative Coyne.

Disturbing claims, if true, but concrete evidence for them is nonexistent. In fact, the Agriculture Department’s own data show that the number of households experiencing any hunger, however fleeting, over the course of a year dropped slightly from 1995 to 1998, even as the food stamp rolls plummeted. Clearly, hunger (or its lack) is not related to food stamp use.

Nevertheless, the Agriculture Department now requires states to hook people up to food stamps on their first visit to a welfare office, after advocates complained that local welfare workers were discussing work and other means of support with applicants before signing them up.

To buttress their case, hunger doomsayers point to a 14 percent increase in food bank use in 1998 in 21 out of 30 cities. A shift toward food banks would be expected, however, given that government now usually requires some work from aid seekers, whereas food pantries still offer something for nothing.

But Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman himself has provided the most powerful rebuttal of the alleged hunger crisis. Last October, when hunger was supposedly “getting worse,” Mr. Glickman was decrying the “quiet epidemic” of childhood obesity, an epidemic that plagues poor children, especially black and Hispanic children, at a far higher rate than middle-class youngsters. Food deprivation is not the main nutritional problem facing the poor today -- too much of the wrong food is.

Contrary to the repeated assertions of the advocates, food stamps are mainly another welfare subsidy, rather than a nutrition program. Only 30 cents of every food stamp dollar buys additional food, according to the sociologist Peter Rossi, who has studied food assistance for the Federal Government; the rest merely substitutes for ordinary income. Food stamps legally purchase gum, candy, soda, chips and every other item in the ever-expanding larder of junk food. The only way to make food stamps a guaranteed nutritional program is to get rid of them and replace them with balanced food baskets, which food pantries can offer.

If the growing stigma against welfare has rubbed off onto food stamps, so much the better for the poor. Food pantries -- ideally ones that ask for something in return -- are in fact a wiser response to temporary hunger than expanding the rolls, for independence is a better guarantee of eating well than entitlements can ever be.