Review of Janet Poppendiecks Sweet Charity
Written for Public Health Reports
J. Larry Brown
Sociologist Janet Poppendiecks work, Sweet Charity, is a somber and well-executed parade stopper. Many of her profession are trained to look into the unintended consequences of policies and programs, and Poppendiecks long familiarity with the politics of domestic hunger has given her a razor sharp edge in assessing the meaning of the tremendous growth of charitable food programs in the U.S. over the past two decades.
Before 1980, the business of feeding Americas hungry brought to mind two distinct images, one being the bread lines of the Great Depression. This was our nations only memory of destitution so great that ordinary families were forced to seek the bread and soup ladled out by small armies of volunteers trying to prevent starvation during an era of economic distress. The other image is more recent, that of grim, inner-city shelters providing a noon lunch of watery soup to a motley crowd of mostly male alcoholics and derelicts. It is a faint memory but one worth recollecting, for before the election of Ronald Reagan our nation did not have an army of food banks, soup kitchens and food pantries dotting the landscape of virtually every community. They were not needed and, therefore, generally did not exist.
Beginning around 1982, several factors converged to change this circumstance and, while Ronald Reagan was not their cause, the policies of his Administration greatly exacerbated their consequences. The sharp recession which began during the Carter years produced high unemployment, high inflation and high interest rates -- up to 13% at the start of the 1980s. Family farms were going belly-up, and fundamental changes in the economy were producing factory closings, relocations, and much unemployment, including among the households of the formerly safe managerial class.
As the torrent of economic vulnerability washed down upon American families unlike any time since the 1930s, the Reagan White House and a Democratic Congress instituted the sharpest cut-backs in safety net programs in the modern era. During the first Reagan budget (1982-1985), billions of dollars were cut from housing subsidies for the poor, an event which proved to be a major factor in the consequent rise of homelessness across the nation. At the same time, over $12 billion was cut from the federal Food Stamp and Child Nutrition Programs -- cuts coming into play at the precise time that the circumstances of unprecedented numbers of households meant that they could not feed their children.
Enter the caring and innovative army of emergency food providers who, along with their corporate counterparts, soon would constitute a force secondary only to government in insuring that hungry elderly, families and children would have a source of nourishment once the last dollar of the month left their wallet. Almost overnight a chorus of churches and social service agency feeding programs sprang up. In New York City more than one hundred new emergency food programs opened their doors in 1983 alone. In Houston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Boston the handful of soup kitchens feeding derelicts were overwhelmed by hundreds and hundreds of new facilities serving a growing clientele of formerly stable households, often with young children in tow. And not only in cities but in towns, suburbs and rural areas the same phenomenon was taking place -- a growing parade of volunteers responding to a growing number of victims of economic and social policy. And to deliver a supply of food to these small facilities the food bank was invented, a central depository of industry cast-offs stored for distribution in bags and boxes, cars and trucks, carted to food pantries housed in the basements of churches and local agencies. Today, nearly 200 food banks dot the United States, existing in every state and servicing more than 50,000 local programs which daily feed the hungry of the nation.
So accustomed are we Americans to the existence of these "emergency food programs" that we have lost sight of their etiology, their meaning and their consequences -- not only for those they feed but for the rest of us as well. Indeed, many people now entering the work force have never known an America where hunger was not apparent and where feeding the hungry was not a feature of the community landscape. Over the course of several years Poppendieck trekked across this landscape to talk with the people who run private food programs and those who use them. What she learned and how she interprets what she saw constitutes an insightful look into the seamy side of the otherwise self-congratulatory business of providing private hand-outs to the poor. The first thing that must be said about Sweet Charity is that its author never forgets, not even in the midst of her pithy analysis, that the volunteers and professionals who staff the charitable food programs are modern-day saints. Without them millions more people in this nation would go hungry, and for the nearly 35 million whom the government already classifies as hungry and food insecure, things would be even more tragic. Poppendieck does not dispute but that the 50,000 private programs preventing this from happening are not only necessary, but represent superb commitment, caring individuals, and highly sophisticated organizational skills. But rather than joining the feeding frenzy, she steps back to ask what else is going on here, what are the costs and what are their consequences. Her answers are most disturbing.
Perhaps her most benign commentary has to do with the "seduction of charity", the social and religious motivations behind the personal involvement of many individuals who feed the hungry. For many, the occasion to volunteer provides meaning to an otherwise unfulfilled life. Whether it rewards those who long for social contact, or simply quality time for the newly retired, volunteering to feed the hungry fills more than the stomach of the receiver. Others are motivated by guilt of plenty, the guilt of too much, or the guilt of having done too little. Perhaps the most troubling motivation is the narrow religious one, not those who fulfill the commands of the major religions to aid the poor, but of those who need the poor to feel good about themselves or, worse yet, as a ticket to the Hereafter. It is this later group which needs the poor to be poor for their own salvation, for whom the poor are not the subjects of injustice but the objects of pity and self-fulfillment. These volunteers worry not about injustice nor dream of a society where their beneficence is unnecessary.
But what motivates the volunteers commands little of the authors time, no doubt in recognition of the fact all of us typically have multiple impulses behind our deeds, and that what matters most is whether they serve a public good. Instead, Poppendieck focuses her analysis on the "Seven Deadly Ins" of the emergency food business -- insufficiency, inappropriateness, inadequacy, instability, inaccessibility, inefficiency, and indignity. Her observations, not new by any means, but more cogent and comprehensive than those offered by others, is that hand-outs are no way to feed the citizens of a wealthy, modern-day democracy. Almost by its very nature the supply of food is not enough (insufficient); it is not the way to insure adequate nourishment (inadequacy); and, no matter how many improvements are made in organization and delivery, it is not adequate to meet the need (instability, inaccessibility and inefficiency). Indeed, even were there a miraculous doubling of the current annual supply of food delivered by Second Harvest, the national umbrella for food banks across the country, it still would be many times deficient to equal the $27 billion cut from the federal Food Stamp Program as part of the welfare "reform" signed by President Clinton in 1996.
Clearly the most compelling "in," to which Poppendieck devotes an entire chapter, is indignity. Tracing the Biblical equating of the words love and charity, the author reveals the fallacy of the equation by holding the mirror to those of us who are charitable: How do we feel when we receive charity? How would anyone feel to have to hold out their hand to a circle of givers? Clearly it is not the same as the reciprocal act of loving. Love personalizes, charity depersonalizes. No matter how well-meant, no matter how cozy the environment, no matter how nutritious the bag of food, it is an indignity for an adult to be reduced to the level of a child by having to rely on others for care and security. It is the essence of dignity, of self-respect, that we feed ourselves and our families. Anything less is an indignity. Period.
Yet its an indignity which many people must swallow and, in truth, one which today is necessary. Were the army of volunteers who feed the hungry suddenly to go home, the indignity of the hungry would be replaced by their malnutrition and ill health. They have to eat, even if at the expense of dignity and, thus, the volunteers in the business must continue to feed them. Neither the hungry nor the volunteers are the ogres in this Catch-22. Neither created the current impasse wherein the twenty year-old "emergency food programs" no longer operate on an emergency basis; they now are part of America. And neither the givers nor the takers, alone, can end this dilemma.
It is at this point that Poppendieck is most penetrating, for she argues that the ultimate cost of this parade of charity is the political cost. The author speaks not of politics in its narrow modern usage, but in the sense of its cost to the community. Poppendieck argues that the Charitable Hydra created to feed the hungry has become a major factor in the nations inability to see, define and solve the same problem. While charity feeds the poor, it also has become the basis for complacency. The poor eat something, thus they are no threat to the status quo. The volunteers have done something, thus they have little need to ask its effect -- let alone its causes. And political leaders point to the "miracle of public-private partnership" and the "limits of government" as the excuse for not using the apparatus of public policy to protect people from hunger as is done in other wealthy western nations.
For the term of his Presidency, Bill Clinton has studiously avoided addressing domestic hunger in any meaningful manner. Today, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, the nations Hunger Commander in Chief, traverses the country giving speeches on the miracle of private charities feeding the hungry, and the joy of "gleaning", the Biblical practice of leaving left-overs in the field for the poor to pick. Poppendieck is right, the existence of this charitable enterprise has corrupted politics. It has turned public justice fighters into a squad of timid pacifists. Our political leaders have become cheerleaders for charity, and charity has become the public Pablum which excuses their interaction.
The ultimate recipients of this "sweet charity" are not the hungry themselves but political leaders whose lack of leadership it masks. In the final analysis private sector food programs are not a sign of success but of political failure -- the failure of American policy makers to bring us into the sisterhood of modern western nations who long ago adopted policies to protect their people form the scourge of hunger.
(Dr. J. Larry Brown directs the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Tufts University, and during the 1980s chaired the Harvard-based Physician Task Force on Hunger in America).