11/23/2010 05:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To Prove Bi-Partisanship, End U.S. Hunger

In a land not too far away and a time not too long ago (in the United States, in the 1970's, actually), Republicans and Democrats worked together to solve major national problems.

The massive effort to fight domestic hunger was a prime example of this bi-partisan cooperation.

In the late 1960's, a team of doctors found pockets of third world-style starvation in low-income communities nationwide. In response, Senator George McGovern, a liberal Democrat from South Dakota, and Senator Robert Dole, a conservative Republican from Kansas, forged a congressional consensus across party and ideological lines -- and gained support from Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter -- to create the modern nutrition assistance safety net (including the Food Stamp, WIC, and School Breakfast programs) over the span of less than a decade.

These federal efforts succeeded spectacularly. In 1979, Field Foundation investigators found a massive reduction in hunger in the U.S. communities that previously had the highest rates, and concluded that the government programs "made the difference."

Had the nation built upon this progress, it could have easily ended domestic hunger entirely. Instead, we retreated. As living-wage manufacturing jobs were replaced by poverty-wage service sector jobs -- or by no jobs at all -- the federal anti-poverty safety net was sliced away, piece by piece.

Domestic hunger has returned in full force. In 2009, more than 50 million Americans, including more than 17 million children, lived in households that suffered from hunger or food insecurity -- unable to afford a full supply of food.

In the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Obama pledged to end domestic child hunger by 2015, and his first budget proposed extra funding for child nutrition programs as a down payment on that goal. The federal stimulus bill (passed with virtually no GOP support) pumped billions of extra dollars into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- the new name for the Food Stamp Program -- thereby preventing the recession from further worsening hunger.

The president and the Democratic leadership in Congress showed great courage in fighting for this vital funding.

Yet that progress was soon reversed, as both parties sought to re-cast themselves. Despite creating mountains of debt during the Bush years, through tax cuts for the wealthiest and a corporate welfare spending spree, Republicans tried to convince the public that their top concern was deficit reduction. Despite the fact that low-income voters -- and particularly low-income non-white voters -- were the only socio-economic group to consistently vote for Democrats in both good times and bad, the Democrats, spooked by the Tea Party's shadow, scrambled to deny any involvement in anti-poverty efforts.

Both sides were convinced that any poverty-related discussion would scare away middle-class voters, ignoring the reality that tens of millions of Americans, formerly solidly middle-class, were teetering on the edge of poverty and hunger themselves.

Amidst this frenzy of denial, Congress, with support from the White House, voted for an earlier phase-out of the recovery bill's increase in SNAP benefits, in order to pay for teachers' salaries and state bail-outs. Even worse, despite the reality that half of SNAP benefits go to children, the Senate, also with White House backing, voted to phase out the SNAP increases even earlier, to pay for a Child Nutrition Re-authorization bill, which funds school lunches. That's right: Washington is trying to cut kids' dinners (and the dinners of their parents and grandparents) to pay for kids' lunches. At least that Senate effort has been stopped by the House, so far. In order to round up the votes in the House, the president and Democratic congressional leaders have promised to work to restore that SNAP/food stamp funding in the future, but that promise may be very had to keep.

It is exactly this kind of political gamesmanship that caused Americans to revolt on Election Day. Voters weren't protesting big government so much as they were protesting bad government.

If both parties want to prove they are serious about bi-partisanship, they should reinvigorate the tradition of working together to fight hunger. Republicans must give up the myths that more tax cuts for the ultra-rich, along with a few crumbs given by faith-based charities, will somehow solve the long-term, structural problems with our economic and social policies that impoverish tens of millions of Americans. Democrats will need to stop clinging to the notion that the one and only way to improve decades-old programs is to give them more money.

Rather, both parties should work together to modernize, streamline, and reduce duplication in the 15 federal nutrition assistance programs, while also ensuring that the programs have enough resources to provide truly nutritious meals to all Americans in need. They should also ensure that this effort doesn't add one penny to the deficit. If they are unwilling to fund this by once again making the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, they should pay for it by slashing agribusiness corporate welfare subsidies.

If Washington wants to prove that bi-partisanship is more than an empty slogan, it must demonstrate to America that it can once again solve big problems like hunger.

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