Rethinking Hunger in America: Adapting the Sullivan Principles

by Nancy Amidei

Ms. Amidei is a writer who specializes in health and social welfare issues and a former director of the Food Research and Action Center.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 21, 1987, p. 51. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


We are the only industrialized nation for which children are the largest group in poverty. Hunger has become a fixture in our country, the wealthiest nation on earth. Doing something about it means changing the way we think about our responsibilities.

A few years ago I visited the pastor of an Episcopal church in an economically mixed neighborhood. To reach his office, I had to pass "emergency shelter" signs, piles of donated clothes, a soup kitchen and a few small mountains of donated food. Once inside his office, I congratulated him for all the activity, and suggested he rename his church the "Emergency Episcopal Church."

"Don’t you be fooled," came his response. "If I wanted to be sure that all the good people did nothing about social justice, I’d just put a thousand hungry people on their doorstep. Those good churchpeople would immediately start to organize people to donate the food, to collect and stack the food, to transport the food, and, later, to cook and serve the food. They’d even organize the people to clean up afterwards.

"They’d be so busy moving all that food from one end of town to the other, they wouldn’t have any time or energy left to do anything about why all those people are hungry in the first place."

He was right. So much energy is consumed in moving the cans, and so little energy in doing anything about why so many people are hungry and poor, that hunger has become a fixture in one of the wealthiest countries on earth. And that is not acceptable. It’s time to stop asking for more soup kitchens and pantries, and to call ourselves and our neighbors to account for actions that cause -- and tolerate -- so much avoidable hunger.

Such accountability will require three things: a better understanding of the nature of poverty in our society; a way to address the anomaly of poverty among working people and their families; and a reminder from recent history concerning how to do something quickly about hunger in America.

In the late 1980s, poverty is taking a new form: it is younger, poorer and more likely to be employed.

Younger. Poverty among the elderly has been cut by two-thirds in the past quarter-century. Today children account for 4.0 per cent of America’s poor. We are the only industrialized nation for which children are the largest group in poverty.

Poorer. A family of three falls below the official poverty line if its income is less than $8,600 per year. Roughly four in ten of America’s poor have incomes below half the official poverty line. And the poverty "gap" -- the amount needed to reach the poverty line -- is growing.

More likely to be employed. Full-time, full-year work at the minimum wage yields an annual income of just $6,968 per year -- which is below the poverty line for any but a single-person household. Two million full-time workers -- many of them with families -- can be found in poverty; 60 per cent of poor families include workers. One of the growing poverty groups is the two-parent family with young children, in which one or both of the parents works full time.

It is little wonder, therefore, that shelters for the homeless are serving growing numbers of working people, including families with young children; that soup kitchens and food pantries fill up at the end of every month with working people whose wages just don’t last all month; and that three-fourths of the 35 to 40 million Americans without health coverage can be found in the household of a worker.

For more than a decade, these "Sullivan Principles" offered a litmus test of basic decency and responsible employer behavior. Anyone could check on whether or not a company was adhering to the Sullivan Principles. Many groups conditioned their decisions about divestiture and other forms of economic pressure on whether businesses had adopted these principles.

The time has come to develop a variation of the Sullivan Principles that would hold American businesses accountable for their treatment of American workers.

Though conditions in this country are not the same as in South Africa, poverty and hunger do violence to the human spirit, and that violence -- particularly when it is a consequence of public policies and publicly acknowledged actions -- should be opposed with the same ferocious indignation that prompted the shantytowns and divestiture battles directed toward South Africa and the American businesses located there. Just as we hold people thousands of miles away accountable for their actions, now it is time to hold ourselves accountable for actions that cause so much of the poverty and hunger in our own communities. Something is fundamentally wrong when so many working people in a country as rich as ours can’t provide food for their children, health care when they’re sick, or a roof over their heads.

Yet efforts to raise basic wages meet stiff opposition from the business community. Equally strong resistance greets alternative structures that would make life on low wages more reasonable: subsidized childcare and housing, expanded and improved food stamp programs or tax-supported health insurance for low-earning working people.

An American version of the Sullivan Principles would address this resistance by outlining four or five basic tenets that congregations and individuals could apply to local businesses to determine whether they protect their workers against hunger, homelessness and poor health, or contribute to those problems. We need to hold ourselves accountable, and, if necessary, press for public and private policies to bring an end to poverty and hunger.

Just as the Sullivan Principles were not limited to what is required by local law, but rather to what would be needed to meet the standards of common decency and responsible community behavior, we might ask whether employers

  • pay wages at least equal to the poverty line;

  • provide childcare subsidies for working parents;

  • provide health coverage for all employees (those working less than full-time could get pro-rated benefits, 20 or 30 hours’ worth of benefits for 20 or 30 hours of work)

Since 1977 the Sullivan Principles have been "amplified" to ask whether a business used its influence for good in the community by, for example, working for "provisions for adequate housing." Businesses in our communities might be asked the same question. At a minimum, paying less than poverty-level wages and denying basic health and pension coverage should be grounds for community opprobrium.

Better wages or the supports to make low wages livable will not make hunger disappear, any more than the Sullivan Principles could make apartheid disappear. And when Sullivan announced recently that he would abandon his code, it was because he felt that sterner measures are now needed in South Africa. But the principles played an important role, and they are widely acknowledged as an effective device for educating and arousing a complacent national conscience. A version of the Sullivan Principles for this country could do the same with regard to hunger. In the process, the lives of working people would be changed significantly. And emergency food aid would no longer be expected -- as is true now -- to compensate for inadequate wages.

Ending hunger now means changing the way we think about our responsibilities -- not just as church members, employers and individuals, but as citizens in a democracy where every voice counts, and where doing nothing is a political act. Church social action committees must go beyond sharing information and offering direct service to take on responsibility for advocacy -- political and personal -- for poor Americans. Hunger could be reduced significantly and quickly by heeding the lessons of recent history, and restoring the role of government food assistance programs.

In 1967, when a team of pediatricians reported to Congress that they had seen children starving in the rural South, their testimony set off shock waves. At the time, little was available to help hungry Americans. The Food Stamp Program had just been revived as a "pilot demonstration project’ in 1961, but it had only spread to a few hundred counties. The system for distributing surplus food commodities (cheese, dry milk, bulgar wheat, peanut butter) was proving to be cumbersome, unreliable and likely to leave its recipients hungry and malnourished.

The situation was not even good for especially vulnerable groups: children, pregnant women, the elderly. Though established in 1946, the school lunch program was chiefly available to schools that could afford it, leaving many of the schools with the largest concentrations of poor children out of the program entirely. School breakfast programs had been authorized in 1965, but no money had ever been appropriated. There was no special supplemental food program for women, infants and children (the program now popularly known as WIC) , no congregate or home-delivered meals for the elderly, and no subsidized meals for children in daycare, residential institutions or summer camps.

Nor was much private charity available. When Americans thought about hunger, they thought about starving children with bloated bellies in Africa or Asia -- not the sickly children next door. There were a few exceptions (skid row soup kitchens in major cities operated by the Salvation Army or the Catholic Worker, chiefly for elderly, alcoholic men) , but, for the most part, soup kitchens and food pantries were only memories from the past.

Not much was actually known about hunger among America’s poor in the 1960s. There were few government or academic studies, and little in the way of local surveys or reports. Food scientists and medical professionals knew something about the damaging effects of serious long-term hunger, particularly for pregnant women and young infants, but even that evidence was mainly from overseas. Before those pediatricians reported what they had found among America’s rural poor in 1967, hunger was not an American issue.

"We don’t want to quibble over words," the doctors told Congress, "but malnutrition is not quite what we found. The boys and girls we saw were sick, in pain, weak. They are suffering from hunger and disease and directly or indirectly they are dying from them, which is exactly what starvation means" (U.S. Senate, July 1967).

At the time, both Congress and the president were preoccupied by the war in Vietnam. They had no interest in costly new social issues that might require public funds and attention. Moreover, they were facing elections in 1968, and neither Lyndon Johnson nor the Congress wanted to go into that election having raised taxes -- particularly not to pay for social programs for poor people.

Far from moving quickly to respond to the new evidence of hunger in America, Congress moved slowly and reluctantly, when at all. Members had to be pushed and prodded by a public that found the news of hungry children unacceptable. But, bit by bit, as the evidence accumulated that the problem existed in areas other than just the rural South, that more than children were involved, that existing measures were not adequate to the task, that unmet hunger carried serious consequences for those affected -- the members of Congress did respond.

They ordered the U.S. Public Health Service to conduct a national nutrition survey. They held field hearings across the country, listening to testimony from state and local health officials, poor people and their advocates. And they invited testimony from schoolteachers and pastors, doctors and nurses, parents and volunteers.

As academic and clinically based studies were carried out, as researchers turned their spotlights onto America’s malnourished poor, and as the public continued to press for action, Congress took action. It created WIC for pregnant and nursing mothers and young children; it replaced surplus foods with food stamps; it expanded school meals; it established programs for senior citizens; and it made food aid generally more available to hungry Americans.

Ten years later, a larger team of health professionals reviewed the hunger problem and reported that "our first and overwhelming impression is that there are far fewer grossly malnourished people in this country than there were just ten years ago" (U.S. Senate, 1977). They ascribed the change to food stamps, the nutrition component of Head Start, school meals and WIC, and said that the food stamp dollar was the best health dollar spent by the federal government.

By then, other studies were available to corroborate the doctors’ observations, along with evaluations of the programs that the government had put in place. A small but entirely positive revolution had taken place: in just one decade the nation had gone from discovering a major social problem -- hunger -- to documenting the need, to putting a response in place, to finding evidence that that response had worked. Hunger was one problem we proved we could solve.

Moreover, the same public that had earlier demanded that its government become involved now moved quickly to fill the most obvious remaining gap: there was still very little private charitable food aid available to meet the kinds of emergencies beyond the reach of government aid. Filling that gap became the response of caring individuals to a renewed awareness of hunger in the early 1980s.

For the first time since the Depression, towns and cities of every size once again had soup kitchens, food pantries, food banks and food lines. Reporters covering the phenomenon could scarcely contain their amazement as they wrote of the people standing in long lines just to get some cheese or a few days’ supply of food. Unions organized food drives for their unemployed members; churches collected canned goods for their hungry parishioners; children solicited pledges as they danced or walked or ran for the hungry.

And, very quickly, new evidence of hunger was collected by pediatricians, obstetricians and other health professionals; by mayors’ and governors’ task forces; by citizen groups and church committees. When Hunger in the Eighties: A Primer was compiled in 1983, it could include only one- or two-paragraph summaries of the various reports in what quickly became an 87-page chapter. Taken alone, any one of the studies or reports might not have been persuasive. But taken together, the evidence left no doubt that hunger was, once again, a national problem.

But while poverty was high and rising, the very programs that had been so effective in reducing hunger and malnutrition earlier were cut by an estimated $9 billion -- a sum that no church or private charities, canned-food drives or Christmas baskets could replace. Even those who receive government help now receive benefits that leave them hungry. (Many of the elderly and disabled on food stamps, for example, receive just $10 per month -- roughly 10 cents a meal.) The combination of a steep recession and deep budget cuts in government food assistance has resulted in long waiting lines for help, and in hunger.

Now, month by month, there are new reports, studies, congressional hearings and hunger evidence of every kind. All point to continuing evidence of need; much of it documents dramatic increases just since 1983. None of it is a closely guarded secret.

The recession isn’t over for poor people. While some in the economy are better off, economists who follow national poverty trends estimate that, even with sustained economic growth of 3 per cent or more, it will take at least a decade to get national poverty rates as low as they were in 1979. The rate of unemployment and underemployment (working part-time when full-time work is needed; working, but earning too little) remains unacceptably high. The need for food assistance remains great.

But far too little is in place to help poor people feed their families. Unlike the 1960s when news of hunger caused citizens to insist that their government get involved, in the 1980s when poverty and hunger rose, Americans -- acting through their elected officials -- cut back food aid for hungry people. Under the circumstances, no one should be surprised that hunger is a problem once again.

Fortunately, in some ways the present holds more promise for ending hunger. Today, more is known about the problem and the toll that it takes. Government programs capable of meeting long-term food needs have been tested overtime, and private programs capable of meeting true emergencies are in place. There are more antihunger organizations, more churches and congregations involved to some degree and -- thanks to USA for AFRICA and Hands Across America -- most Americans know there is a problem. That’s all to the good.

What is missing in the 1980s is the sense of shock and outrage, the anger and commitment necessary to make us do whatever it takes to get the job done. Bringing our understanding up to date with the facts, developing "Sullivan Principles" for America’s working poor, and pressing for the maximum use of government programs capable of ending hunger quickly are three logical ways to get us back on track.