Their bellies were swollen and their fragile limbs covered with sores that would not heal. Clothed in rags, these children of the Mississippi Delta huddled in crumbling shacks with empty iceboxes, not a morsel of food to be found.
It was a level of human suffering and despair that brought a New York Senator to tears. Walking, stunned, from one hovel to the next, Senator Robert F. Kennedy saw conditions that rivaled what he’d seen in third-world countries.
It was 1967. Kennedy had headed south in response to a report by civil rights attorney Marian Wright that detailed levels of childhood hunger unconscionable in the richest nation on earth. What he saw there helped galvanize a nationwide response.
Daniel Schorr of CBS News was on the trip and brought the awful facts to TV sets and living rooms across the country. Kennedy went on to Eastern Kentucky and saw similar devastation. Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina took an investigative trip in his own state and found severe malnutrition. A CBS news report, “Hunger in America” found more. A Citizens Commission funded by the Field Foundation added yet another trove of shattering findings. Senator George McGovern chaired a bipartisan special committee that visited numerous venues with the same results.
Responding to the overwhelming evidence, President Richard Nixon sent a message to Congress in 1969 asking for a dramatically expanded and improved national food-stamp program. Congress obliged. And until this day, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better known as SNAP) has enjoyed strong bipartisan support. Senator Bob Dole saved it from proposed cuts in the 1980s. President George W. Bush restored its funding after the 1996 welfare law deeply cut benefits.
The support for SNAP on both sides of the aisle points to a profoundly unifying belief that the majority of Americans share: A country of our bounty, resources and power has no excuse for watching a single one of its citizens starve.
That enduring support is also a testament to the simple fact that SNAP has worked. Today, this country continues to suffer from stubborn and painful poverty. But we have nowhere near the level of malnutrition and life-threatening hunger that we did at the time of Kennedy’s trip, after which the United States came together to set a clear national standard for human dignity.
But that dignity is in danger. President Donald Trump has proposed to cut nearly $200 billion out of SNAP. His budget would shift a large percentage of the program’s cost to states, allowing individual governors and state legislatures to shrink benefits and exclude beneficiaries.
The impact of these cuts would be devastating. Forty-three million Americans rely on SNAP. More than half of SNAP recipients are children or the elderly. Many are low-wage workers, trying to make ends meet in jobs that don’t pay enough to keep food on the table. Many more are families in extreme poverty — the 45% of the poor whose incomes are below half of the poverty line or below $850 in income a month for a family of three — for whom SNAP is a literal lifeline.
These cuts are one of many wounds Trump has inflicted on the poor and working poor in the five months he has been in office. The Senate health care bill he seeks to pass targets the sick, elderly, disabled and impoverished with breathtaking precision. His proposed budget threatens not just SNAP but heating aid, legal services, student loans and mental health care for those most in need. And, while that budget cuts hundreds of billions of dollars from policies to empower the working class, his tax plan would give even more than that to the very richest among us.
It is a stunning attempt to reverse the slow but steady progress we have made since Senator Robert F. Kennedy first touched down in the Mississippi Delta fifty years ago and called on a nation to act. Worst of all, it is a rebuke of the collective decency that American citizens and leaders offered in response.