Will Trump and Ryan Hit Rewind on Hunger in America?

Tomorrow Donald Trump will officially begin his quest to “Make America Great Again”. So now is as good a time as any to dust off some old footage, hit rewind, and press play on some former “greatness” that may be restored by Trump and the current Congress.

Hunger in America, a CBS documentary that originally aired in 1968, is a good place to start. Aside from being amused about how journalism and cultural sensitivities have changed, modern audiences can catch a glimpse of an America in which low-income families of all races were clearly worse off than they are now. The present-day implications are clear.

SNAP (aka Food Stamps)

Hunger in America is about . . . well, hunger in America. The program opens with a shot of a frail, underweight baby being cared for in a hospital. The audience watches as the unrealized life takes his or her last breath. Throughout the program, children and adults appear to have dazed expressions, a sign of hunger. The audience knows this because multiple medical professionals list the symptom among a litany of other negative health consequences experienced by their patients living in poverty.

Hunger in America was one of many resources that informed the American people and policymakers in the lead up to significant expansions of the Food Stamp program (now the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP) during the 1970’s. SNAP is a part of a short list of federal entitlement programs. Its resources are uncapped. It’s budget doesn’t require annual approval by Congress.

If you’re hungry and need assistance, this means never being told that agencies are out of money and just can’t serve any more people. This is true on an ordinary day, but also on the extraordinary ones that lead to high demand. SNAP was flexible and ready to help during the Great Recession of 2007 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It’s also there for those setbacks that garner less national attention like the closing of a factory responsible for most of a town’s jobs.

Hitting rewind on SNAP could end all that. Though little is known about Trump’s plans for Americans living in poverty, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan wants to end the SNAP entitlement. He has proposed block granting the program, capping available resources and creating an avenue for future Congresses to starve the anti-hunger program. States may start turning away hungry people in need of help. In short, there is a possibility of recreating the conditions illustrated in Hunger in America — increased hunger, starvation, and poor health conditions.

Healthcare

Increased hunger adds a new burden to the nation’s healthcare system. It multiplies the number of people in need of medical treatment for conditions caused by malnutrition. But Hunger in America is relevant to other aspects of the current healthcare debate.

In 1968, the news crew detailed a previous version of the food program that required impoverished Americans to purchase their food stamps. The results were what you might expect. CBS easily found people who couldn’t afford food stamps. Poverty prevented them from participating in the poverty program. Instead their children went hungry.

A similar idea is now on the table for the nation’s healthcare system. Seema Verma, Trump’s choice to head up the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, worked with Vice-President-Elect Pence to create the Indiana healthcare system. Poor must purchase healthcare. Missing a single payment means being barred from the system for 6 months. Hunger in America illustrates what that might look like — news crews being easily able to find Americans who can’t afford a basic need and who are sick and potentially dying as a result.

As with SNAP, Paul Ryan has also proposed block granting Medicaid (ending the entitlement). Hunger in America illustrates the tragedy of Americans not having guaranteed access to life-sustaining services.

Race

A poignant conversation with a black mother in Alabama dramatically appears at the end of Hunger in America. Again, it was 1968 or the early years following the massive social change brought about by the civil rights movement. The woman was brave and straight forward, “The white people used to be nice to us. But they’re not anymore. They’re mad about us going to their schools and voting.” New policies were preventing black families from growing their own food and there were barriers to accessing aid — to her, this was clearly a form of retaliation for unprecedented social progress.

Sound familiar? Trump’s campaign was racially charged and there were post-election increases in hate crimes and harassment. This climate of racial resentment may very well be a response to social changes most visibly marked by the election of the nation’s first black president.

What’s more, white nationalists and supremacists heavily supported Trump and believe their man won. With hiring choices like Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, it’s possible their voices will influence the future president on a daily basis. It’s unclear how extremists will be able to achieve their goals in a growingly diverse America — unless, of course, substantial numbers of people of color leave the country, die, and/or fail to have healthy babies capable of thriving. Depriving people of food and healthcare furthers all of the above.

The rub is that SNAP and Medicaid have never been race programs. Weakening these programs hurts Americans of all races, including those who are white. And, most people of color are not poor — it’s just that poor people can be easily demonized and targeted by the media and politicians.

For a poor black woman in 1960’s Alabama, it must have required bravery to speak the truth as she saw it. At this political moment, concerned citizens must be equally as brave. We can not abandon efforts to speak the truth about racial attitudes that help shape policy and who we are as a people.

(Originally Posted on Medium.con on January 20, 2017)

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