Black History Month this year coincides with a high-stakes political conflict over federal food programs for impoverished Americans. Too often, debates about budgeting these longstanding programs hinge less on the availability of funds and more on the "culture" of the poor.
Fifty years ago during the first confrontations over the Food Stamp Program, talk of lazy fathers and out-of-wedlock mothers became as pivotal as it is now. Then, challenges came from civil rights activists who had plunged into antipoverty work.
Today, constant references to "broken families," "inner cities," and "cycle of dependency," and "drug abuse" terms that often become code words for poor African Americans convince many Americans that restricting food stamps is a good idea because a sector of the poor is deceiving them.
Such language draws a line between needy families whom both parties term the "struggling middle class" and those depicted as outside that category. The resentment it has fueled has bolstered the political profile of many calling for restricting or abolishing programs to help poor people.
This needs to stop. But it hasn't.
One state after another has opted to use taxpayer money to perform drug tests on a subset of welfare recipients who seem like they might be drug abusers. Such "suspicion-based" programs have turned up few such abusers. Nevertheless, Maine just became the latest state to announce it will roll out such a program.
The Texas Legislature will vote on a similar one this spring. Texas policymakers would be wise to vote against such a requirement.
Food stamp recipients have never been subjected to these tests. When Georgia attempted to do so last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered it to stop.
Current federal law prohibits mandatory drug testing because it would add an extra requirement for eligibility; anyone refusing the test would be denied benefits. Regardless, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who recently presented his state budget, intends to make his state the first to do just that.
The specter of junkies supporting their habits with food stamps is a powerful example of how cultural vilification could potentially sway voters to support a harsher food stamp program.
But the stakes can best be grasped by looking back to the struggle that erupted over federal food programs 50 years ago.
In plantation counties that had become battlegrounds for the voting rights movement, activists confronted horrifying levels of poverty, including hunger and malnutrition that threatened the lives of infants and young children.
Circumstances became so dire in part because cotton planters finished replacing sharecroppers with machines in the mid-1960s. Still, Lyndon Johnson's 1964 Food Stamp Act should have staved off malnutrition, as an alternative to the existing program that distributed mostly starchy food commodities.
Instead, it exposed the poorest families to crippling hunger because the stamps had to be purchased, and it gave county officials the power to choose which program to implement, if either.
Civil rights activists suspected authorities of using the Food Stamp Program to pressure newly registered black voters to move.
Today, when the racial connotations are more veiled, we should remember how Unita Blackwell responded to state officials who blamed hunger on unwed mothers of "illegitimate" children at a 1967 Senate subcommittee hearing: Black women's sons were "illegitimate" when it came to assistance, she declared, but "legitimate" when they reached draft age and were sent to Vietnam.
That kind of indignation fueled the years-long campaign to eliminate fees and require food stamps in every county.
At the hearing, Marian Wright Edelman then an NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney but soon to be the founder of the Children's Defense Fund in 1973, persuaded Sens. Joseph Clark and Robert Kennedy to see the conditions for themselves.
Forty-eight years later, she and the Children's Defense Fund issued "End Child Poverty Now," a straightforward economic plan to eliminate most child poverty. The problem, it underscores, is one of political will.
This Black History Month, politicians need to stop encouraging Americans to buy into this old vilification of poor people and to start paying more attention to demands to end poverty now.
Laurie Green is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
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