THE NATION'S mayors gathered in Washington this week for their annual conference, where homeland security, tax reform and budget cuts topped the agenda.
No less urgent, though, were sessions on poverty and hunger - topics big-city, suburban and rural mayors have become well acquainted with as unemployed parents and low-wage workers increasingly turn to local governments and charities for help feeding their children, paying heat and medical bills, even holding on to their homes. A recent survey of 27 major American cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found requests for emergency food assistance by families with children rose 13 percent in 2004, and 12 percent for the elderly. Of adults requesting food assistance, one-third were employed.
About 20 percent of these requests went unmet because of fund shortages, and two-thirds of emergency food facilities reduced the amount of groceries provided.
The mayors should demand attention to this problem from Congress, the White House and state governors and lawmakers, especially given the administration's stated desire to cut or place limits on federal entitlement programs, such as the food stamp program, in the 2006 budget.
And a good place to start looking for money, on the federal level, would be in the $8 billion in farm subsidies given to large agribusinesses - which are already said to be on President Bush's chopping block.
Hunger is not simply a problem of the desperately poor. It is common among families earning too much to qualify for government assistance but not enough to make ends meet, and also among the working poor who mistakenly believe they are ineligible for food stamps. Only 56 percent of those eligible apply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages the program. USDA data show that "food insecurity" among American households has climbed and that about one in nine households was hungry or at risk of hunger at some point last year. These families suffer in silence and shame. What's shameful is that a bountiful nation that feeds millions of people around the globe is failing to feed its own.
More than a million U.S. residents fell below the federal poverty line in 2003 - 800,000 of them children - pushing the total to 35.9 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, food stamp participation rates have climbed steadily since 2000.
To its credit, the administration has revised the program's rules to make it easier for those eligible for food stamps to get them. But Mr. Bush, the compassionate conservative, can't leave the larger hunger problem to well-intentioned but overwhelmed charitable groups. He should neither cut nor cap the food stamp program.