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Speakers blame government for hunger problem

By Mary Condello

Poverty in the United States has reached epidemic proportions, according to panelists at a discussion of hunger and homelessness in the United States entitled "Poverty at Home" held last Tuesday.

The MIT Hunger Action Group sponsored the talk, featuring panelists Melvin H. King, adjunct professor of urban studies; Judy dePombriant of the Harvard School of Public Health; Nan Johnson of the Boston Food Bank; and Susan Marsh of the Coalition for the Homeless.

The federal government's priorities are a major cause of the currently large hunger problem in this country, according to dePombriant, a member of the Physicians' Task Force on Hunger. "There is a priority problem, not a resource problem."

The United States ranks first in the world in military expenditures and 17th in "keeping infants alive," dePombriant said. The Reagan Administration has cut close to $10 billion from child aid programs since 1980, while the military budget has increased by $32 billion, she added.

dePombriant described the universality of the problem, saying "Hunger touches the newly poor, the old, the young, immigrants, urban residents, [and] suburban residents...." The present gap between the rich and the poor is the largest in US history, dePombriant said.

Needy families often encounter difficulties meeting eligibility requirements for government aid, she said. In more than half of the states, families with both parents at home are not eligible for financial aid. This restriction has caused fathers to leave their homes so their children can eat, dePombriant said.

Those households that qualify for aid receive little help from such programs, she added. Food stamps provide an average of only 50 cents per meal.

Minimum wage laborers are also suffering, dePombriant said. Minimum wage has been fixed at $3.35 since 1981, while the cost of living has increased 20 percent during the same period.

Proponents of current cuts in social programs claim that economic growth will benefit the poor and hungry, she said. "Malnourished children can't wait for economic growth," dePombriant countered.

One in six Americans have no health insurance, she said. The United States and South Africa are the only industrialized nations that do not have a National Health Insurance system, dePombriant said.

The efforts of private individuals and religious organizations in the fight against hunger will not improve the situation, dePombriant said. "Charity won't solve the problems that reduced government spending has created."

King also blamed the government for the hunger problem. "The advocates for the working class and poor have suffered a setback in the reelection of Ronald Reagan," he said. "The militarism of the country must be turned around.

"We're mistaken if we think the programs we have are doing the job. The solution has to come from the people who are most affected by it," King concluded.

Johnson spoke about the hungry in the Boston area. Over 35 percent of the residents in Boston are near or below the poverty level, she said.

She showed a brief slide presentation that depicted a sample of the hungry and homeless in the city. The slides also highlighted some of the food pantries and shelters in the city.

The problem is more serious than it appears, Johnson said. "Statistics don't count those too afraid, too depressed or too discouraged to get help," Johnson said. Supermarkets and companies waste close to 137 million tons of food each year. That has only compounded the problem, she added.

Marsh discussed causes of homelessness in the area. "The statewide housing market is reaching new highs in price and new lows in supply," she explained. Record numbers of condominium conversions, an especially low vacancy rate and lead paint contamination in many houses have tightened the market, Marsh added.

Homelessness is now an "economic issue, not a personal one," she said. The stereotypical "single man with a substance abuse problem" is not representative of today's homeless, Marsh said.

Most of those who are homeless are families, often headed by a female, she explained. These families often are forced to live in hotels or motels in single rooms for long periods of time.

The two basic goals of the Coalition are the establishment of a housing trust fund to provide low-income housing and a right-to-housing campaign to provide permanent housing, she said. "Housing is a right which should be accessible to all people," Marsh said.