The Constitutional Case for Hunger Relief

October 30, 2013 05:32 AM

By Susie Hoeller

On the cold winter evening of Jan. 6, 1941, when England was still enduring bombardment by the Nazi Luftwaffe and Japan had not yet attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his famous "Four Freedoms" State of the Union address to Congress. He declared that all people, not just Americans, should enjoy four essential freedoms: the Freedom of Speech, the Freedom of Worship, the Freedom from Want and the Freedom from Fear.

The first two freedoms (the Freedom of Speech and the Freedom of Worship) were already enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The "Freedom from Fear" referred to freedom from aggression and invasion by other countries. The "Freedom from Want" referred to freedom from poverty, particularly the freedom from the ravages of hunger.

More than 70 years later, we are facing a winter full of bickering in Washington while more than one in seven Americans are food-insecure. The financial crisis of 2008 spawned a devastating and lingering recession during which the federal deficit has skyrocketed, unemployment has increased and wages have declined for the working and middle classes. Nearly 48 million Americans are currently receiving food stamps—the largest number in history. The average individual benefit is $133 per month. The program's spending has more than doubled, going from $38 billion in 2008 to $78 billion in 2012. That amount, while controversial, is large enough to assist families, but it is not enough to end their suffering. We still face another year of hunger at home, and around the world.

While Republicans and Democrats continue their fight on Capitol Hill over the size of the food stamp program and the root causes of food insecurity, how can we motivate our fellow citizens to get personally involved in providing food to needy seniors, children, disabled adults and unemployed adults? Of course, there are able-bodied people who have grown too dependent on government programs and have chosen not to work. But surely they are vastly outnumbered by Americans who cannot find work or are working at insufficient wages. It is these people and their children who will suffer if Congress cuts safety net programs to make those who have chosen not to work less dependent—an admirable goal provided there are enough jobs available that pay wages sufficient to support a family.

Clearly, our hardworking farmers and ranchers currently produce enough food to feed all Americans. But this will likely change in the future with climate disruptions and other shifts to our food production systems. Some investors are predicting the doubling of food prices in the coming decade.

There is no current possibility of the federal government passing Robin Hood taxes on the super-rich and in fact, many wealthy Americans are already generous in their charitable contributions directed to hunger relief. It is possible that these people could dig even deeper into their pockets to donate to food banks and other organizations working to relieve hunger. But it is likely that will not be nearly enough.

We need a grassroots movement, led by organizations like the Farm Journal Foundation, to rally Americans and bring them together to say, "NO—we are not going to live in the richest country in the world and continue to see millions of our fellow Americans go hungry." It is immoral and indecent to let this happen and as we shall see, contrary to the wisdom of our Constitution. We need leaders who will truly focus on hunger relief, who will lead a social movement that will end hunger in our country—just like President John F. Kennedy led our country to put a man on the moon in 1969 and President Ronald Reagan led our country to victory in the Cold War during the 1980s.

Without food security for all, our nation will not be strong and secure. Hungry children cannot learn and develop their potential. An America with millions of citizens facing daily hunger, no matter what the underlying cause, is simply not the America that our founders envisioned when they wrote these words in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution:

"WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the General Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

The founders of this country were certainly self-reliant in every respect, including risking their own lives in rebellion against the British Crown. But they understood that self-reliance alone would not build the United States of America. This is why in 1787 they wrote about a "perfect Union" and the "General Welfare" and the "Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." The founders used the word "Liberty," a synonym for "freedom." When, 154 years later, President Roosevelt proclaimed the "Four Freedoms," it was a restatement of the founders’ original vision.

Today, we can be proud that our country has protected three of the four freedoms (of speech, of worship, from fear). At the same time, all Americans should be saddened that in a country so richly blessed with natural resources and the most productive and innovative farmers and ranchers in the world, we have failed to live up to the founders’ vision of the "General Welfare" or President Roosevelt’s "Freedom from Want."

Now is the time for new leadership to emerge to finally make the "Freedom from Want" a reality for all Americans. Of course, we need to encourage and celebrate self-reliance. Self-reliance is a virtue. But not when it is politically manipulated to deny sustenance to the hungry among us.


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