01/16/2012 10:36 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2012

Racism, Dr. King, and Food Stamps

Recent statements by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, which implied that African Americans were uniquely dependent upon food stamps, were only the latest episodes in a decades-long effort by the American Right to demonize social programs by giving the false impression that they are only used by non-white people.

It is no coincidence that many of the strongest supporters of racial segregation in the 1960s were also the fiercest opponents of increasing government support for anti-hunger programs. Leading segregationist and South Carolina Senator, Strom Thurmond, almost succeeded in halting efforts to require the federal government to measure hunger, saying: "There has been hunger since the time of Jesus Christ and there always will be."

Powerful House Agriculture Appropriations Chair Jamie Whitten from Mississippi complained to Senator George McGovern that, if "hunger was not a problem, nigras won't work," and that McGovern was promoting revolution by seeking an improvement in food stamp benefits, which Whitten thought would be used for "frivolity and wine." Whitten even opposed expansion of the School Lunch Program to many of the nation's poorest jurisdictions that did not yet have such programs. (Sadly, the USDA headquarters building in Washington, DC, where I worked for eight years, is now named for Whitten.)

Conservatives supporting welfare reductions in Wisconsin in the late 1960s called welfare recipients "gorillas." In the 1996 welfare reform debate on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, a Congressman held up a sign that said, "Do Not Feed the Alligators."

In 2006, in a column arguing against the expansion of social programs, Heather MacDonald of the conservative Manhattan Institute wrote: "The explosive growth of the U.S. Hispanic population over the next couple of decades does not bode well for American social stability. Hispanic immigrants bring near-Third World levels of fertility to America, coupled with what were once thought to be First World levels of illegitimacy."

Despite the fact that, since the inception of the Food Stamp Program and cash assistance programs, the majority of recipients have always been native-born white people, there is no question that these attacks have worked. A key reason that the United States never developed a more robust social safety net like those in Western Europe is that Americans falsely believed that most of the people needing help were non-white, and thus did not want to use their tax dollars to support the "others." Tellingly, as Western Europe has become more racially diverse and more populated with immigrants over the last few decades, voters in those countries have also supported scaling back their social safety nets.

Not coincidentally, Dr. Martin Luther King, responding to near-starvation conditions found in parts of the U.S., viewed access to food as a civil rights issue, saying: "What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger?" King made the hunger issue a central component of his Poor People's Campaign. After King's assassination, the movement, led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, camped out on the Washington Mall to dramatize the issue and to call for the expansion and creation of federal nutrition assistance programs. These efforts generated wide-spread media attention.

While conventional history today tells us that the Poor People's Campaign petered out after King's death and was essentially a failure, that's not entirely true. In the years following the movement's encampment on the Mall, the president and Congress jointly expanded the Food Stamp Program and federal summer meals programs for children from relatively small pilot projects into massive programs, and created the National School Breakfast Program and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program that provided nutrition supplements to low-income pregnant woman and their small children.

These expansions succeeded spectacularly in achieving their main goal: ending starvation conditions in America. In 1979, the Field Foundation sent a team of investigators back to many of the same parts of the U.S. in which they had previously found high rates of hunger in the late 1960s. They found dramatic reductions in hunger and malnutrition, and concluded: "This change does not appear to be due to an overall improvement in living standards or to a decrease in joblessness in these areas.... The Food Stamp Program, the nutritional components of Head Start, school lunch and breakfast programs, and... WIC have made the difference."

These programs proved beyond a shadow of the doubt that government programs, properly targeted and effective managed, can be extraordinarily effective. Perhaps that's the real reason that conservatives so desperately seek to discredit them.