Tag Archives: History

Hunger History Lesson – Celebrity fundraising during the 1980s famine in Ethiopia

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a historian. Like an actual, two degrees in the subject, works at a museum historian. And I seriously never know what will come up in a given day at the museum. Once I had someone call to ask me what the phone number for the police was before 911 because he was restoring a vintage police car and wanted to put the original number on it. Once I spent an afternoon watching Nazi propaganda footage. Yesterday I spent time going over satellite images of a prison yard looking for an old cemetery. It’s always old, but it never gets boring…

So when I was thinking about a new topic to bring to Food Shelf Friday, I quickly thought of history. I love all the where did this come from and whatever happened to… Right away I thought of a hunger issue from my childhood – the 1980s famine in Africa and the celebrity fundraising response.

Check out this gem – We Are the World by USA for Africa, 1985. Just take the seven minutes and giggle at the ‘80s fashions, try to identify all the celebrities, and get this song firmly lodged in your head for the day (sorry not sorry).

Do you remember it? I do! I remember singing that song in school music class and seeing the video on TV. The famine in Ethiopia was all over the news from 1983-85. It was the worst famine in that region in a century, caused by drought and coupled with civil war and human rights violations, it resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. When the Ethiopian government failed to adequately respond to the crisis, international aid organizations and foreign governments began to pour into the region with funds, supplies, and aid workers to try and alleviate the crisis.

In 1984, after seeing a BBC story on the famine, a group of British and Irish musicians got together under the name Band Aid to record a song to raise money for the crisis. Do They Know it’s Christmas hit the airwaves in December of 1984 and raised millions for dollars for the cause.

Inspired by the Brits, a group of American musicians calling themselves USA (United Support of Artists) for Africa, recorded their own single, We Are the World (hyperlinked again because I KNOW you want to watch it again…). The song was released in March of 1985, and it also brought in millions of dollars.

Inspired by their success, the musicians decided to keep the momentum going and planned a huge, world-wide concert and telethon event called Live Aid. On July 13, 1985, concerts were held simultaneously in Philadelphia and London, while other performances went on in countries across the globe. Pulling it off involved satellite feeds, multiple media organizations, venues, performers – barely controlled chaos! But the publicity and fundraising stunt worked in spite of the big egos and technical chaos. Between the initial event, and the books and recordings sold later, Live Aid eventually raised over $125 million for famine relief in Africa. It also inspired musicians to hold similar events for other causes, including Farm Aid for American farmers losing their family farms, and Live 8 for global poverty relief.

I hope you enjoyed this blast from the past! Follow the hyperlinks to check out YouTube videos, org websites (yes, some of them are still around and raising money for today’s crises), and a History Channel article. If you love the celebrity gossip stuff, check out the Wikipedia pages, especially for Live Aid. Wikipedia isn’t the most reliable source, so I didn’t include it here, but if you want all the dirt and gossip of who was invited to perform, who was left out, who failed to show up, and who dropped the f-bomb on live TV, Wikipedia has all that. Share your memories of these star-studded relief efforts in the comments!

watw-album-cover

ALL Lives Matter

ALL Lives Matter

I don’t want to write this post. I don’t want to live in a world as sad and messed up as ours seems to be right now. But I can’t hide my head in the sand. I can’t ignore the elephant in the room any longer. Even though Food Shelf Friday is primarily about hunger, I have to address the racial situation in our country. After all, a big part of the hunger crisis in this world is about inequality.

 

Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. – John Stuart Mill, 1867

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. – Isaiah 1:17

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28

As many of you know, I’m an historian by trade. I have a degree in history, and am just a few thesis revisions from a Master’s in public history. I work at a history museum. My specialty is 20th Century America, with an emphasis on local history. Mostly what that means is that I’ve read a lot of books…

When I was working on my B.A., we once had a welcomed day off while our professor attended a conference on slavery in the modern world. When she returned, she shared with us this thought: by talking about slavery as if it ended in 1865, we have done a great disservice to those living in slavery and those trying to fight it today.

As I watched the news these past few weeks, especially the happenings of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area where I live, I couldn’t help but think: by talking about racism as if it ended in 1965, we have done a great disservice to those living with unfair racial prejudice and those trying to fight it today.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended the practice of de jure (by the law) segregation. But even more difficult to pinpoint and control is de facto (in actuality/in fact) segregation. De facto segregation is segregation as it plays out, not in the legal system or the school districts, but in unregulated social practices and in people’s hearts and minds.

We don’t like to think that we’re racist. We prefer to believe that racism was a southern problem and that it ended when President Johnson signed those laws. After all, we know mixed race couples, have black friends, and even elected an African-American President. We’re so much more enlightened than we used to be, right? It’s progress, sure, but if a black man doesn’t feel safe innocently driving around town, we still have a problem. If sports teams’ money and “traditions” are more valued than an entire race of people whose feelings are hurt by a racial slur, we still have a problem. If race limits employment or educational opportunities for anyone, we still have a problem.

I know the answer. And no, I’m not going to say, “can’t we all just get along?”though it is that simple, it’s not that easy.

The answer is, “Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord” (Lamentations 3:40).

  1. Examine your heart: I know you’re a good person with good intentions, but see if there is any aspect of your life where you can be judgmental or self-serving. Really look deep, past the layer of tolerance, and see if in your heart of hearts you have followed God’s commands to seek justice, to fight for the powerless and abused, to share with others who are not like you. It’s not easy, but we have to get past excusing ourselves and even patting ourselves on the back for getting away from de jure segregation when the residue of de facto segregation still remains and clutters our hearts.
  2. Take responsibility: After you have examined yourself, resist the urge to blame society or your parents or whatever made you who you are, and start taking responsibility for your own attitudes and actions. Recognize your imperfections and commit to change. You’re not a bad person or a racist, but I’ll bet you make snap judgments now and then. I know I do. The first step to healing is to admit that there is a problem, even if it’s a small one.
  3. Get involved: Now, I’m not saying you have to go out and protest, and I’m definitely not advocating violence. What I am suggesting is that you start giving of yourself to love people who are not like you. Get to know your immigrant neighbor. Write a letter to your elected officials. Give or serve with an organization that fights for justice or creates opportunity. And most of all, pray.
    If you spend time on behalf of another, it will change your heart. You will stop seeing “other” or “threat” and start seeing “child of God.” If you get to know someone, serve, and pray, you will learn to love.

If you have something to say about current events (and it seems like EVERYONE has A LOT to say these days), feel free to leave a comment. You don’t have to agree with me, I’m open to discussing different opinions, but you do have to be respectful. I will remove comments that I deem to be offensive or rude.

A Brief History of Welfare in America

brief history of welfare

This week I listened to another audiobook courtesy of the Overdrive app and my local library. If you have a smart phone, tablet, or e-reader, I highly recommend you ask your local library if they have the Overdrive app available. There are tons of audiobooks and e-books you can check out for free.
Anyway, when I was scrolling through audio titles recently, I came upon a book called $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. My first response to the cover material and introduction was skepticism. For as much as I know about poverty and hunger, I still did not believe that this extreme level of poverty was possible in America. Between SNAP, Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security Disability, welfare, WIC, private charities, and private donations, I could not believe that there were people with no job AND who were turned down from these social security nets.

As the authors, a sociology professor and a social work professor, began to unwrap their research, I could see the pockets of this level of destitution that exist here in the United States. I still had trouble finding sympathy for some of the subjects because of their terrible life choices. The authors did not go digging for the most innocent victims of poverty, to be sure. I am also not completely sold on some of their conclusions. Their plan involves a lot of expansion in government services and job creation, yet they offer few if any suggestions about how to fund such programs.

But feelings and solutions aside, the most valuable part of this book in my opinion was the historical context it gave to American welfare programs. So using this book as my source, today’s post is a review of that history.

The Great Depression
Prior to the Great Depression in the 1930s, government welfare programs were virtually unheard of in the United States. But when things got desperate, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted several pieces of legislation aimed at putting Americans back to work and providing for those who were unable to care for themselves. Many of the programs (such as the Works Progress Administration which put Americans to work on public works programs) expired or were discontinued when the Depression ended. Others continue even to this day, including Social Security for the elderly and disabled, Medicare and Medicaid health insurance. One of the programs that came out of the Depression era was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), commonly known as welfare. AFDC provided a cash safety net for families with children who found themselves in a desperate situation.

The Great Society
In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson greatly expanded social service programs, including AFDC, as part of his “Great Society” initiatives. Johnson’s goal was to eliminate poverty and racial inequality in America through a series of legislation which expanded existing social programs like Social Security, AFDC, food stamps, and Medicare/Medicaid. It also created Head Start, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The 1970s and 1980s
Reaction to the Great Society programs were mixed. While it provided tremendously for struggling Americans, many felt that it rewarded indolence and unwed procreation. Edin and Schaefer argue that welfare was widely unpopular after the Great Society because it was at odds with deeply held American values like self-sufficiency, the primacy of family, and the value of hard work. They site a study where the majority of Americans in a survey group stated that they believed that the government was not doing enough to help the poor, and in the same survey they responded that welfare was too expensive. Americans were concerned that welfare was trapping people in a cycle of dependency, and they complained of costly abuses of the system. Ronald Reagan made welfare reform a campaign issue in the late 1970s, and the popular support for welfare reform helped get him elected.
Also during this time, the food stamps program was renamed SNAP, and a program using an Electronic Balance Transfer (EBT) card rather than paper food stamps was instituted to cut down on the (illegal) sale of food stamps, a popular survival strategy for people with no cash income.

Welfare Reform
For all the rhetoric, Reagan was not able to push though significant welfare reform. The issue continued to be a popular campaign topic but difficult to enact. In 1991/92, Democratic Presidential candidate Bill Clinton took up the mantle, promising to “end welfare as we know it.” Once elected, President Clinton set out to reform the welfare system using aspects of a plan proposed by Harvard professor Dr. David Ellwood. Elwood’s plan proposed a system that encouraged work through a combination of cash welfare and job training, with limits on welfare that would encourage individuals to wean off the system and guaranteed jobs in government if nothing was available in the private sector. As the various welfare bills made their way through committees, the House, the Senate, and onto the President’s desk (where two welfare reform bills were vetoed), the legislation looked less and less like Ellwood had imagined. The final result was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which virtually eliminated welfare as we knew it and instituted a new work-based program. It replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a program that supplied cash welfare with strict time limits and work requirements designed to prevent long-term welfare dependence. The results have been mixed. Proponents are quick to point out that the welfare rolls have shrunk dramatically, but opponents point out that the number of families suffering from lack of resources, and the strain on private charities have increased as a result of the reforms.

The System Today
The TANF program was reauthorized in 2005 with slight adjustments. Following the advent of the Great Recession in 2008, Congress enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a temporary addition to TANF designed to get Americans through the recession. It provided a temporary TANF emergency fund (2009-10) as well as jobs programs aimed at stimulating the economy and improving American infrastructure through public works programs.
In 2010 the TANF program was reauthorized for a second time.

It’s not easy to tell the whole story of American welfare in 1000-ish words. I know this does not cover every argument for and against the programs. But it does provide you with a basic understanding of how we got to where we are today. Edin and Schafer argue that the old system was out of sync with American values and full of holes, but they also argue that the current system leaves many people with few legal options. They propose further reforms that focus on wage and workplace protections, and work opportunities, among other ideas.

This feels a bit scary, like opening Pandora’s Box, but if we agree to be civil I think we can have this discussion. What POSITIVE changes would you like to see in the way the federal government treats the poor? More mental health services? An increase in the minimum wage? Leave a comment!