Here's a philosophical variation of the "if a tree falls in a forest" question for you: if 44 million Americans fall below the poverty line, and no one hears it, do they make any sound?
Over the weekend the Washington Post published an article about how little reaction had been expressed over the shocking new statistics showing that 44 million Americans now live in poverty. One in five children are so classified. It is a level of economic suffering unseen in nearly 50 years. Yet it has been greeted mostly with silence from policymakers in both the Administration and Congress. Is anyone calling for bipartisan summit meetings like when the banks were in trouble? Emergency sessions of Congress or the Council of Economic Advisers? Don't hold your breath.
At one point the Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation embodied the hopes for a robustly-funded major assault on hunger in keeping with President Obama's pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015.
But as deficit concerns became the priority in Congress there have been cuts of billions of dollars of future Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to offset spending for other needs like aid to states to keep teachers and state employees in their jobs and even to fund portions of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization as happened with the Senate-passed bill.
This experience reinforced a couple of age-old lessons about power in Washington:
First, the vulnerable and most voiceless are always at risk, even at the hands of those elected to represent them, perhaps especially at the hands of those elected to represent them. As Congressman Jim McDermott told the Washington Post: "For most elected officials, there is nothing politically in talking about the poor. In fact, they don't vote very well and they are not very participatory in political life. Politicians tend to talk to people who get involved."
Politicians seek the path of least resistance and cutting SNAP benefits was perceived as a politically safe choice. Teachers and state employees, who were able to protect their funding, have unions, PACS, access, and political power. So does corporate agriculture and the livestock industry. Hungry children do not. As our champion Rep. Jim McGovern often reminds us, hunger is a political condition.
Second: you can't fight something with nothing. Everyone kept waiting for someone else to propose offsets. The advocates said the Administration should propose. The White House and Ag Department said that was Congress' job. No one did. Except the special interests.
Notice the course taken by those who didn't want to see their programs cut, like the livestock industry that opposed cuts in a farm conservation program that had been designated to pay for increases in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization. They had no problem suggesting where alternative cuts might come from: SNAP. Instead of merely crying "unconscionable" and urging their supporters to "oppose any cuts" they pointed their finger to a very specific target.
Those who are most voiceless need advocates to project a stronger voice and propose specific alternatives to ensure robustly funded anti-hunger and anti-poverty programs.