On November 1st, one in seven Americans on food stamps had their benefits cut, to the grand tune of $5 Billion nationwide. There is only one rational way to describe this action. It is utter madness. The scope and breadth of the madness are hard to calculate, but we can give it a good shot. Let’s start with the raw numbers. Last year, there were 49 million Americans who experienced food insecurity. That’s 15% of the population. Nearly 16 million of them were children.
In children, the effects of hunger are terrifying. We could trot out statistics all day about how they do poorly in school, how they experience depression and anxiety, how their bodies can’t fight infections, how their growth is stunted. But let’s not get too tied up in that. The statistics have been around forever, and they aren’t changing anything by themselves. Let’s just talk plainly. Children are growing. To grow, they need fuel. Food is fuel. If they don’t get it, they don’t grow properly. When they reach adulthood, they will suffer for the rest of their lives because they did not grow properly.
We all know that, right? Is there one among us who does not know that starving a child is a cruel and heartless thing to do? So why are we even entertaining the idea at a national level, much less putting a plan into action whose direct consequence will be millions of starving children? Why, in a nation where enough food to feed everyone goes to waste, would we not hang a millstone around the neck of a person who even hinted in the direction of anyone at all starving, much less a child? We spend a billion dollars a year throwing away food that is perfectly good to eat. You read that right. We’re cutting food stamps by 5 billion dollars while we spend 1 billion to throw away food.
Read that again. Let it sink in. We spend a BILLION dollars to throw away food in America, and we’re cutting food stamps by 5 BILLION dollars.
Can we call this anything but evil? In what possible universe can it be a good thing to look 45 million hungry people in the eye and then throw away the food they need?
But why? Why are we doing it? Why haven’t we stormed Washington by the millions to demand an end to this madness? Perhaps the answer lies in our misconceptions of government, fueled by propaganda and misinformation from Republicans and Tea Party fanatics who envision a Libertarian Utopia, free from any government interference. Perhaps we cherry pick our Bibles, fawning over Michele Bachmann when she quotes the bit about people who don’t work not eating, while conveniently forgetting the words of Jesus, who admonished the wealthy to sell all that they own to give to the poor. Surely it has something to do with the verifiably incorrect belief that poor people are lazy. Whatever the root cause, the end result is inexcusably flawed logic.
Let’s take another path for a moment. Let’s imagine that we can build our country in a different way. Let’s propose something momentus: The federal government gives every single man, woman, and child in America enough food stamps to eat well for their entire lifetime. Does it sound preposterous? Does it sound like socialism gone barking mad? If it does, bear with me for a minute, and let’s see if that proves true, or whether we’ve drunk too much individualist Kool-Aid to recognize a great thing when we see it.
The government provides a lot of basic services to all Americans. The roads, the fire departments, the farms, the police, the hospitals, the courts, the jails, the social services, the universities, the students, the elderly, the poor, and a thousand other entities are government funded in various ways, and it’s all paid for by your taxes. In theory, the government could insist that everyone pay for all their own services. We could be forced to pay an inspector to certify the safety of our own food. We could be asked to pay out of pocket before firemen would save our homes. (This actually happened, in a manner of speaking, and just recently.) A few right wing crazies think this sounds like a good thing, but to most sane people, it sounds horrifying.
We’re mostly okay in principle with the government providing a lot of services that seem free but actually cost a lot of money. We pay taxes for all of these services, whether we use them or not. That’s the way it works. So why not take the remarkable step of making food one of the basic services our government pays for?
What would the country look like if everyone got free food? Would people stop working? Probably a few, but most people have other bills to pay. And probably a lot of people would like to have caviar from time to time, or would want to shop at the specialty gourmet shops and organic markets and so forth. People would supplement their free food by splurging from time to time.
What possible negative effect can we think of from people getting free food? Would the grocery stores close? Of course not! They would be getting paid for the food just like before, only the government would be picking up the tab, not the individuals. In fact, more people would be shopping, because… remember that bit about 15% of the population not having enough food? Forty-five million more people would buy food. That’s what’s called a boon.
Remember the food waste thing? How much of that food would be put to use if everybody ate whenever they were hungry? How much of that billion dollars would be saved? I don’t know, but I know there would be an impact. How much would the country save on medical bills once nobody suffered from malnutrition, and all the physical illnesses that result from hunger just vanished? How much would our children’s grades improve once none of them were too hungry to learn?
Where is the downside in this plan? The only one I can think of is that certain people would be unhappy about paying the taxes for it. Is this really a downside?
But what’s that I hear from the right side of the aisle? It’s way too expensive to be realistic? Taxes would be so high that it would force people into poverty? Well, let’s consider that for a moment. What are the worst effects of poverty? Those would be hunger and homelessness. We’ve eliminated one of those, and not having to pay anything for food means that a higher percentage of after-tax income would be available for housing, right? So it doesn’t look like a good argument on its face. Let’s dig deeper, though. Just in case.
The U.S. government has found that a “moderate” food plan for an average adult is about $260 per month. Let’s take that as our rough number, since adult males generally eat the most of anybody. So our men will be scrimping a little, but everyone else will eat just fine. There are currently around 320 million Americans. A little math gives us a grand total of $83,200,000,000 a month. That’s a terrifying number. Could we really afford an 83 billion dollar program? It’s preposterous, isn’t it?
Well, not really. For a start, let’s not forget that we all pay for food already. Who among us doesn’t pay $260 a month for food if we can afford it, right? (That’s $8.67 per day. Most of us spend that for lunch, don’t we?) And remember that everybody is getting a food card. So we’re paying taxes that are essentially returned to us, minus some processing and handling charges. So let’s take out the food we’re already paying for. If we do that, we’re left with $11.7 billion.
That’s still preposterous, don’t you think? Almost 12 billion a month to give every poor person enough to eat? Actually, it’s not. If we divide that cost evenly between all the non-hungry people (Remember, that’s 275 million people), it comes out to $42 a month. If we could somehow muster the intestinal fortitude to tax every well-fed American $42 dollars a month, nobody in the country would have to go hungry ever again. In case you want to put this in sharper perspective, the U.S. military costs $178 per person per month.
But that’s not as pretty as it might seem. A lot of those 275 million are students, or children, or seniors, so it’ll be a lot more than that per taxpayer. Well, what if we could fix that? What if, instead of taxing our citizens, we taxed our businesses instead? Walmart’s revenue for 2011 was $442 billion dollars. $11.7 billion is a 4% tax on that revenue. So a 4% corporate tax on just one company would feed every single hungry American for one month. Put simply, if we taxed only the Fortune 500 companies, we would have an embarrassment of riches left over after we fed every hungry person in America for the entire year. There would be no hassle about qualifying, no offices filled with bureaucrats fighting over who deserves what, no muss, no fuss. Just everyone in America with plenty to eat. Sure, there would be lots of people who didn’t *need* the service, but so what? Lots of people lose good jobs and need temporary help over their lifetimes. Imagine never having to stand in line for food stamps again, knowing that no matter what happened, you would never, ever go hungry, no matter where you lived, whether or not you were working, how old you were, or anything else. Imagine an end to hunger in exchange for the slight inconvenience of paying a tax and receiving a benefit card.
The truth is as simple as simple can get. Not only is there no reason for anyone to go hungry in America, it would be an absolutely simple matter to feed everyone. There is plenty of food, and there is plenty of money, and we could do it without raising the effective tax rate by one penny on a single individual. If we did that, we’d still live in a capitalist society. Walmart could still gouge its opponents with its massive market leverage. Banks could still be too big to fail. Anyone who wanted to go it alone could choose not to spend their government “handouts.” They could bury them in the backyard to show their disdain for the evil, awful socialists who gave them free food. But really, would anyone want to throw away perfectly good food?
After imagining this country where everyone eats, let’s come back to reality. My plan isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Even so, perhaps we can use it to put things in a bit of perspective. Perhaps we can use it to fuel the fires of righteous indignation at Republicans who would dare to suggest that starving the poor is anything but heinous, inhumane, and dreadfully evil. We may not be able to end hunger in a single stroke, but we can damn sure prevent anyone else from starving in the name of fiscal responsibility. That is a lie, and a vicious one, and we must not tolerate it any longer.