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If Fire Burns in Hell, It's Not to Cook a Feast for Our 'Surplus' Hungry

June 20, 1986|RICHARD N. GOODWIN | Richard N. Goodwin is a regular contributor to The Times

Like most Americans, I go to bed hungry every night. I am on a diet, engaged in a continual battle to look fashionable while living forever.

There are many among us whose hunger is not so wistfully voluntary. They can't afford to eat. They do not have enough food to sustain a vigorous existence, or enough of the right food for healthy nutrition. About 20 million citizens of this abundant land are kept on such a compulsory diet. And the majority of them are either very old or very young--the groups most vulnerable to the life-destroying effects of undernourishment.

Unlike Ethiopia or the Sudan, America has the ability to feed, and overfeed, all its citizens. Our agricultural prowess is among the wonders of the world--so prodigious that we are paying some farmers not to produce and driving others from the land.

Too much hunger and too much food. A horrifying dilemma that future historians will find difficult to unravel. Their efforts, unfortunately, will do little to comfort those who are this very day suffering the pangs of undernourishment. And it will be far too late for those many thousands who, before the end of this summer, will die from the effects of malnutrition.

Pursued by the urgency of this inhuman mystery, I came across the words of our visionary attorney general, Edwin Meese III. Speaking of poverty and hunger, he sought to vindicate that most legendary enemy of the poor, Ebenezer Scrooge. "So let's be fair to Scrooge," he exhorted. "He had his faults, but he wasn't unfair to anyone." It was a moment of illumination. For Scrooge--until a Divine visitation terrified him into generosity--was not an irrationally cruel and selfish man. His refusal to feed the hungry helped "to reduce the surplus population."

Instructed by Scrooge's rigorous rationality, we, too, are lowering the number of unproductive citizens. Those elderly who are deprived of an adequate diet die earlier, thus reducing the cost of medical treatment and relieving the burden of care for relatives and government alike. Malnutrition also helps us to sustain the worst--i.e., highest--rate of infant mortality in the industrialized world (we rank 24th). Nearly all of these deaths occur among the poorest element of the population whose children, if allowed to live, would for the most part end up burdening the welfare rolls, collecting unemployment, receiving subsidized health care and, in myriad other ways, adding to the financial burdens of hard-working, patriotic Americans.

For those opposed to abortion there is an added benefit: By allowing infants to die shortly after birth, we reduce the incentive to dispose of them in the fetal stage.

The millions of hungry who are not old, young or pregnant are a drain on the resources we have set aside for welfare, unemployment, free health care and subsidized housing. They thus add to the national deficit and hold back the space program. Despite the steady reduction in food assistance since 1981, most of these people are able to sustain a precarious, if somewhat enervated, existence. To make meaningful cuts in this portion of the surplus population, we will have to eliminate all help and let nature take its course.

There is, however, one alternative to the "Scrooge solution" to our mystery. Unless one is ready to believe that Americans have grown cruel and selfish, that they are willing to impose deliberate anguish on the "surplus population"--which I refuse to believe--then what seems callous and different must be ignorance. We all hear the figures and listen to debate. They do not arouse the angered compassion that is a necessary condition of action. And the hungry themselves, the misery of their daily struggle--the dying infant, the enfeebled old--are invisible. They live in another America, perhaps only a few miles away but as removed from our daily experience as the rings of Saturn.

A physicians' group recently designated an area of Virginia as a Hunger County. Their label was promptly and sincerely denied by county officials. The contradiction was explained by a retired employee of the Agricultural Extension Service. "The people with means," he said, "live out along the highway and they are the ones who are seen. The poor live far back on the land and are rarely ever seen."

What a dismal awakening from the American dream--that, like the European aristocracies from which we rebeled, we should avert our attention, our awareness from the most needy and deprived among us. It is a betrayal of our heritage and our founding principles. And it is also a transgression of a far more ancient and terrifying command. It is foretold that on the day of judgment Christ will accuse the condemned of having refused to feed his hunger. When they object that he never came among them, he answers, "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." And he casts them into eternal damnation.

Were I a more religious man, I would have to believe that every time a life is lost or crippled for want of food, another fire is lit in Hell.

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