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Humphrey Bridge Over the Partisan Divide

August 14, 2012 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Second in a two-part series, read part 1.

In a childhood encounter with the late Hubert H. Humphrey, he was regaling farmers and delegates to a Grain Terminal Association (GTA) annual meeting on why they needed to support food aid, foreign aid and domestic feeding programs.

"The poor, the hungry just walking around looking in windows, they are not your customers. They are window shoppers,” he told the group that is now an integral part of CHS Inc., the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperative.

My parents often disagreed on the merits of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. They did agree on what Humphrey was saying. And that line, indelibly printed in this youngster’s mind, made sense to Upper Midwest farmers back then as it would to most farmers today.

It wasn’t just food, noted St. Paul attorney, former Humphrey aide and USDA state official John Apitz in a recent discussion. Tied in with food assistance was his support for economic development worldwide.

Humphrey is associated with proposals that led to forming the U.S. Peace Corps as well as P.L. 480, or the Food for Peace program. Humanitarian assistance today makes those terms somewhat suspect.

A 1993 book edited by the late University of Minnesota economist Vernon Ruttan delved into those linkages even as prominent developmental economists at that time criticized food aid programs for how they came to be used by special interest groups. Especially troubling to the scholars was how food aid had been redirected into a surplus farm commodity disposal program often missing the mark on both development and food assistance needs of the recipient countries.

Recalling my days as a Washington newspaper correspondent covering Humphrey, I recently told a group of St. Mary’s graduate students from around the world that food aid has harmed local economies at times. But survivors and descendants from war-torn environments, and famines from droughts and hurricanes, hold a far more favorable view.

A USDA economist sought me out in the early 1970s when Humphrey responded to television reports of spreading famine in Ethiopia. He sought congressional approval for the government to acquire huge quantities of farm commodities for disaster relief.

“We couldn’t dispose of all that food aid in one country,” the economist said. “What is Humphrey up to?”

When asked the next day, Humphrey explained, “We Americans are charitable people. But we suffer from compassion fatigue. There is always another Super Bowl, a World Series, or something to distract us,” suggesting we should stock up while politicians and the public were feeling generous.

Before the year was out, U.S. assistance from Humphrey’s emergency legislation was used in response to problems in the Caribbean, other parts of Africa, and Asia.

At home, Humphrey and his Senate food and agriculture allies, George McGovern of South Dakota and Bob Dole of Kansas, largely shaped the Food Stamp program, now known as SNAP.

Apitz, however, points out they worked constantly with nonprofit, nongovernmental agencies dealing with hunger issues, and they had important House of Representatives allies and co-leaders such as Minnesota Rep. Bob Bergland, who later served as U.S. agriculture secretary.

Today, most economists and political scientists point to food stamps as one of if not the best domestic programs because it arms the needy with purchasing power that supports the entire food chain, meets most but not all human food needs, and brings food access to communities that too easily become food deserts.

The companion of that program is the Women and Infant Children nutrition program (WIC) also shaped by Humphrey, McGovern and Dole. When former President Richard Nixon tried to choke WIC of funds, Humphrey became a co-plaintiff with six nursing mothers to challenge the diversion of funds on Constitutional grounds.

That was among suits that led to a Supreme Court ruling and Congress’ clearing up when the executive branch can withhold properly appropriated funds.

Every problem Humphrey and colleagues dealt with 30, 40 and more years ago has returned.

The hottest July in recorded U.S. history is threatening the global food supply. Peace is proving elusive. Hunger at home and abroad is on the rise. And now we have Congress trying to divert funds from food stamps, food aid, and income assistance programs to expand unequal tax advantages to the well fed, well housed, and privileged.

At the state capitol dedication, former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Walter Mondale and others commented on the civility that marked Humphrey’s work and experiences in government.

This old Washington correspondent agreed with everything they said, and looked back fondly at the days when Humphrey worked with Mondale, Bergland, John Blatnik, James Oberstar, Joe Karth, Donald Fraser, and across the aisle with conservatives like Dole, Reps. Al Quie, Ancher Nelsen, Bill Frenzel and John Zwach, to name a few. They did have disagreements; they didn’t try to sacrifice the poor, the hungry, and the lowly.

Before Barack Obama took office, I often thought Watergate caused Gerald Ford to inherit the greatest mess of problems of modern era presidents. But Ford had this advantage. Not one of Humphrey’s contemporaries wanted Ford to fail as America struggled with pressing global, social and economic problems.

Food supplies are again becoming scarce. Civility is gone. Humphrey’s voice and reasoning are greatly missed.

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