Can we at least agree that no American should go hungry?
I wish this were a rhetorical question. Our political fractiousness runs so deep right now that even a moral imperative this basic — and dare one say as biblical — would no doubt invite immediate contention. We’d argue about what government should or should not do about hunger, how we should weigh collective versus individual responsibility and, of course, who is to blame for our problems.
But before we give in to despair, it’s worth reminding ourselves that hunger is one problem around which the United States has a history of action across partisan lines. Perhaps we can try to protect this oasis of moral consensus and do some good.
This is why an announcement by the Biden administration that it will convene a White House conference this fall on ending hunger and improving nutrition deserves more attention than it’s received.
It would not surprise me if you are groaning as you read that. What good does a “conference” do? Doesn’t it sound like a public relations stunt, a case of President Biden trying to show he’s on top of spiraling food prices a couple of months before an election?
Actually, no. Of course, Biden will do everything he can to try to neutralize the inflation issue this fall. But believe it or not, this conference grew out of a bipartisan effort in Congress to highlight the problem of hunger and insist that a very rich country should be able to wipe it out.
The prime mover behind the meeting is Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who joined last year with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), another anti-hunger crusader, to sponsor a bill calling for the new White House conference.
They were joined by two Indiana Republicans, Sen. Mike Braun and Rep. Jackie Walorski. At the time, Braun spoke of the simple moral sense behind the effort. “There is no reason,” Braun said, “that millions of Americans in rural and urban areas alike should be going to sleep hungry.”
It matters that one of Jim McGovern’s mentors was Sen. George McGovern. They’re not related, but the congressman was inspired by the late South Dakota senator’s unlikely alliance with Kansas Republican Bob Dole to build the modern food stamp system, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The last White House conference on hunger was organized in 1969 by none other than President Richard M. Nixon, who went on to clobber McGovern in the 1972 presidential election. McGovern nonetheless praised Nixon for his work on hunger, a reminder of a time when even archrivals could work together — and when leaders in both parties were willing to embrace a substantial role for government in problem-solving.
The coming White House meeting could provide another rare opportunity in Washington: To acknowledge real public policy successes while facing up to work that still needs to be done.
The expansions of SNAP and other innovations, including the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, slashed hunger rates. “Hunger was everywhere before McGovern and Dole took the issue on,” Jim McGovern said in an interview. “There’s no question that these programs have helped alleviate the problem.”
Further increases in food assistance during the pandemic led to a decline in 2021 in the number of adults reporting that their households had not gotten enough to eat in the previous week, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The broader panoply of relief policies enacted after the covid-19 outbreak, including the now sadly expired expansion of the child tax credit, put a major dent in poverty levels at a time of economic challenge.
And Biden will be able to take a bow at the conference for new rules on nutrition standards for food stamps that led, as the New York Times’s Jason DeParle reported, to “the largest permanent increase to benefits in the program’s history.”
The conference is timely because while this Biden policy will endure, many pandemic-era programs are lapsing, which will set back the fight against hunger. Even with the recent advances, roughly 1 in 10 Americans face food insecurity, and McGovern noted that “returning to the pre-covid status quo would leave tens of millions of people hungry.”
It is easy to see how bipartisanship could quickly give way to renewed ideological acrimony over the need to build on rather than back away from the successes of the programs the covid economy inspired, notably the nutrition expansions and the child credit.
Still, Jim McGovern hopes the White House conference can be “as transformational as the one more than 50 years ago, a way to change the mind-set in the country so we can think big again. That was the way McGovern and Dole used to think.”
Do we still have it in us?