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Friday, March 04, 2005

Hello? This is Lazarus. Can I have some food?

In a country obsessed with losing weight, it is both ironic and shameful that fully ten percent of American households must deal with hunger on a daily basis. Granted, being hungry in this country does not mean what being hungry in Ethiopia means. We don’t have a problem with starvation. This does not mean that we should not act.
In gross numbers, this means that approximately thirty-three million people just can’t guarantee where they’ll get fed tomorrow. This includes some thirteen million children. You can say that the adults out there going hungry are just paying the price for their decisions in life, but what are you going to say to the children?
Such big problems just don’t lend themselves to charitable influence. Most major cities run food closets that are perennially thin on supplies and sometimes empty altogether. It is the definition of a problem too big to be handled on anything less than a federal level. We should not hesitate to push for a solution.
If we gave each hungry child $100 per month in food benefits, then the cost would be about $15.6 billion annually. Yes, it’s a lot more than I can write a check for, but it is a miniscule part of the federal budget. In fact, the estate tax that is targeted for being, among other things, an insignificant contributor to the budget pulled in over twenty billion in 2003. It would be a simple, and fairly painless, thing to dedicate estate taxes to anti-hunger programs for children.
This would not mean starting new government programs, either. The vast majority of these hungry children could be reached through existing school lunch and breakfast programs. Millions more could be reached by subsidizing meals for Head Start and daycare programs. Channeling the funds through this way would prevent any temptation to use food benefits for other purposes. It would be the surest way to get food into the hungry mouths of children.
The Bible provides a compelling argument for doing this. The Book of Luke gives us the image of Jesus telling the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus was a beggar who sat at the rich man’s gate and begged for food while the rich man lived in luxury. When both had died, the rich man looked up from his torment and saw Lazarus at Abraham’s side, enjoying his eternal reward – which I’m sure included a nice kosher meal. Lazarus asked God to send Lazarus to his father’s house to warn his brethren of their wicked ways. God’s reply was, “They have Moses and the prophets. If they do not listen to my words now, they will not believe them from a dead man.”
But it is not just the Bible that holds this view. In “The Gospel of Wealth” Andrew Carnegie castigated the wealthy class that sought to pass considerable wealth to their posterity while ignoring their debt to society. A rich man, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “had a peculiar responsibility to his fellow man”. Both men fought hard to initiate an estate tax to press the wealthy to administering – giving charitably – their wealth while they were alive. Part of the missed message of “A Christmas Carol” is the incredible toll children pay for being poor and hungry.
Alternatively, the income tax could be used. In 2003, over 168,000 people filed with more than one million in income. An additional ten percent surcharge on incomes over one million dollars would more than pay for the program I am proposing. I don’t deny that these people already pay a lot of taxes – they pay at the same rate as someone making only $300,000. However, the additional taxes will be made up very quickly. So you wait until February to buy a new Ferrari rather than November. No one is hurt and thirteen million kids are better off.
To me, it’s a no-brainer. We can ask our Wall Street moguls, sports stars, music and movie stars, and a handful of lawyers to pay just enough to keep our children from starving, or we can take the money from people who are already dead and have proven that you can’t take it with you. Either way, the children win. Better fed children make better students who grow up to be better citizens who have better jobs.
Jesus said we should do it. So did Roosevelt, Carnegie, and Dickens. We can’t wait for a dead man to tell us this is right.

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