WASHINGTON — Washington. - Wednesday the U.S. Department of Agriculture unwittingly did a great favor for David Duke, the ex-Ku Klux Klansman who hopes to be elected governor of Louisiana.
It announced that in August a record 23.6 million Americans -- almost 1 of every 10 -- were counting on federal food stamps to put food on their tables. That's grist for the demagoguery mill of Mr. Duke, who has been screaming that welfare such as food stamps is a ''subsidy for criminals.'' A Nazi sympathizer, Mr. Duke is emotionalizing voters by claiming that an unmarried woman with two children who gets $190 a month in welfare in Louisiana will deliberately have another baby out of wedlock in order to get $11 a week more.
That Agriculture Department announcement may become a national blessing, however, if it enlightens Americans to some facts and realities that Mr. Duke and other racists will not mention:
* If you run your country in such a way that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, as we have in recent years, you will wind up with a lot of poor people. Which means a large welfare and food-stamp bill, unless we are prepared to see millions of people die from hunger.
* If you run the American economy in a way that leaves some 16 million people jobless, semi-employed or utterly hopeless, you will have a very costly pool of people who seek survival in government social programs. And if unemployment hits black Americans twice as hard as whites, as it always does, you will find blacks doubly represented in that mass of people getting welfare and food stamps.
* Despite what Mr. Duke and other demagogues imply, these federal-state social programs are not handouts to ''lazy'' minority people who live off ''hard-working'' white people. Whites make up two-thirds of the Americans who live below the poverty line. Figures from 1989 show that 46.2 per cent of food-stamp users were white, 37.2 per cent were black and 12.5 per cent were Hispanic. It is reasonable to assume that the white percentage increased in 1990 and 1991, during a recession in which a lot of middle-class Americans have lost their jobs.
* Race aside, most men who can't hold a job and function as proud ''breadwinners'' for their families lose respect in the eyes of wives, children and peers. So a deep recession also takes a toll in desertions and divorces, reaching right into the upper middle classes. Then this society falls into the vicious cycle in which once-stable families disintegrate into units that need more food stamps, welfare, health assistance and other government ''safety nets.'' And all this explodes in the form of more crime in more areas of America.
Those Agriculture Department figures about food stamps ought to jolt President Bush into a realization that more than partisan nit-picking lies behind the criticisms that he never stays home to even try to ameliorate the economic mess in America.
No one can dismiss even the feeble chance for peace that may lie in the Madrid talks on the Middle East. But the U.S. economy may have fallen into hell long before the Israelis and Palestinians reach agreement on a single item of importance. It will be comfortable for the president to go to Asia and to Hawaii to observe the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, but it is a mission that won't affect much of anything in the real world, including Japan's now winning economically what it could not win half a century ago with suicide bombers.
It is hard to escape the suspicion that President Bush would rather be in Spain, the Far East or anywhere that he is shielded from having to read that one-tenth of America has found the humiliation of eating on food stamps, or going hungry . . . father, mother and children.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.