Fifty years ago, Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, documenting – among the many ravages of poverty – that millions of children in the richest country on earth went to bed hungry every night. His book inspired two Democratic presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, to launch a war on poverty, then estimated at more than 20 percent of the population.
Fast forward a half century. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, running in the Republican primaries, accused President Obama of being the “food stamp president” because more people were receiving benefits from that anti-poverty program than at any time since its inception – 46 million at a cost of $75 billion a year. The recession-driven expansion triggered scorn from conservatives on Capitol Hill and a government crackdown on fraud that allegedly wasted about one percent or $750 million a year.
Lost in that political maelstrom was the dog that didn’t bark. Despite unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression, there were no reports about the return of widespread child hunger in the U.S. “In this recession, poverty has gone up but hunger has not,” said John Carr, who directs anti-poverty policy development and advocacy for the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference. “When somebody stood up and said this is the food stamp president, neither the president nor anyone else stood up and said, ‘we’re a better country because kids don’t go hungry in this country.’”
Carr was one of about 200 anti-poverty advocates who gathered in Washington Tuesday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Harrington’s pioneering work. But the mood was hardly celebratory. With a “fiscal cliff” looming at the end of the year, liberals are girding for battle to defend food, housing and income support policies that over the last half century have largely ameliorated the worst effects of being poor in America.