Food prices in the United States shot up in 1917 as a consequence of World War I, then engulfing Europe. Agriculture had come to a halt in the theater of war, so the US had stepped up its production and export of food in response. Our nation was shipping vast quantities of food overseas (wheat especially), both in support of the Allied war effort and to relieve famished civilian populations. Besides leading to a collossal loss of life, the all-consuming war had disrupted everyday life in many countries, reducing many people to homelessness, hunger, and worse.
Back in the States, the price of food was skyrocketing. Food was scarce, and ordinary wage-earners couldn’t afford enough food to feed their families. Frustrated women, many of them immigrants, began protesting in places like Newark and New York City. The crowd of women above “charged” New York city hall in the winter of 1917 to plead for bread.
Similarly, women in Newark slogged en masse through the snow and slush to present their mayor with a petition for food relief. Many of the women brought their children to the demonstration. The spectacle of the protestors, appearing in numbers with their hungry children, made the urgency of their hunger tough to ignore. Only people with a just case would stand so patiently in bad weather, the snow falling on their umbrellas, hoping for compassion and mercy to come down, too.
Stuck in a cab heading north last time President Obama was in town, I had an opportunity to listen to NPR, a station preferred by many cabdrivers. It was five p.m. and traffic was at a standstill, so I was able to catch most of ‘Marketplace.’ One of the features was about food-stamp assistance and the many thousands of American workers who don’t have enough to feed their families.
One of the persons interviewed was a Walmart employee, who recalled a painful period recently, when she and her family had had to rely on food stamps, even though she was working full-time. Her voice kept breaking as she talked. Embarrassed by her hardship, she was fighting back tears. To me, her experience was extremely shocking, illustrating how Walmart, one of America’s largest, most profitable corporations, is essentially gaming our federal-assistance programs. Its lowest-wage workers manage to keep going only by using food-stamps to feed their families. What’s more, when underpaid workers and others receive food-stamps, they often spend them at Walmart and other discount retailers.
An April 15 article appearing in Forbes magazine reports that “Walmart Workers Cost Taxpayers $6.2 Billion in Federal Assistance.” The article is based on findings of a new study by Americans for Tax Fairness, which estimates that a single Walmart supercenter costs US taxpayers as much as $900,000 and $1.75 million annually, because Walmart pays its employees so poorly that, to meet their needs, many end up relying on food stamps, Medicaid, and low-income housing.
Meanwhile, Walmart is thought to be the single biggest corporate beneficiary of food-stamp spending. The Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal reported last year that the retailer received as much as 18 percent of all the food-stamp dollars spent. That amounts to $14 billion annually. Walmart’s total profits were $17 billion in 2013.
Millions of Americans experience “food insecurity”—meaning they do not know where their next meal is coming from. An astonishing 1 in 7 Americans (47 million people) rely on food-stamps these days. Even that figure doesn’t represent the number of Americans who are hungry. Many elderly people who qualify for food stamps refuse to sign up for them because of their pride, according to Eli Saslow, whose reporting on American hunger for the Washington Post has just won the Pulitzer Prize.
I urge you to read or listen to Krissy Clark’s eye-opening 3-part series, “The Secret Life of a Food Stamp,”