What Would Santa Do?

The Bush administration has just announced cuts of an estimated $100 million to one of our most critical aid initiatives: helping the poor and hungry around the world feed themselves. Despite enough food produced in the world to make us all chubby, the United Nations recently announced that hunger is on the rise again. Already more than one in seven people in the world go hungry.

Addressing hunger's root causes has never been more urgent.

The administration blames this cutback on unavoidable budget belt-tightening, but the excuse is hard to swallow. This administration has always been able to come up with resources for food and agriculture – only not for poor farmers in other countries, but for the richest in ours.

The figures aren't yet in for 2004, but assuming the past years' pattern holds, a total of $68.3 billion will have been given away in domestic farm subsidies since President Bush came into office, according to research by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit.

That comes to more than 600 times the announced aid cut.

Since 1995, the top ten percent of our nation's largest farms have received nearly three-quarters of these federal subsidies. For the bottom 80 percent of U.S. producers who received subsidies, their average was just $768 per year. Two-thirds of our nation's farmers get no subsidies at all.

But here's the double scrooge: Our agricultural subsidies at home directly undercut the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers abroad who can't compete against them.

All this does make sense, though. Since the presidential elections in 2000, agribusiness has lavished 72 percent of its campaign contributions to the Republican Party, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research organization, with their contributions in the past three election cycles adding up to nearly $114 million.

Those five to seven million people in developing countries who aid workers estimate will be directly hurt by these cuts probably didn't contribute quite as much.

The United States is by far the largest donor to the United Nations food programs, as Elizabeth Becker notes in her recent New York Times article about these cuts. That sounds generous, but U.S. foreign aid as a percent of GNP lags well behind other industrial countries.

It's not that the American people don't want their country to share the wealth. Polls show Americans believe we are giving away 20 percent of our GNP in foreign aid (or 143 times more than we actually give in official development assistance). They think 10 percent would be about right. So, given the facts, Americans would support a large increase in our giving.

President Bush's choice to cut this particular aid is tragically short-sighted. Throughout the world, people increasingly perceive America as isolated, out of touch with the suffering of others. Now is the time when the administration must demonstrate we understand that helping create strong, self-reliant communities is essential in finding our way beyond fanaticism and violence to security and democracy at home and abroad.

If not, Santa, I fear, will zoom right past the White House.

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