American Hunger Means A Feast for Some

The empty feastStuck in a cab heading north last time President Obama was in town, I had an opportunity to listen to NPR, a station preferred by many cabdrivers.  It was five p.m. and traffic was at a standstill, so I was able to catch most of ‘Marketplace.’  One of the features was about food-stamp assistance and the many thousands of American workers who don’t have enough to feed their families.

One of the persons interviewed was a Walmart employee, who recalled a painful period recently, when she and her family had had to rely on food stamps, even though she was working full-time.  Her voice kept breaking as she talked.  Embarrassed by her hardship, she was fighting back tears.  To me, her experience was extremely shocking, illustrating how Walmart, one of America’s largest, most profitable corporations, is essentially gaming our federal-assistance programs.  Its lowest-wage workers manage to keep going only by using food-stamps to feed their families.  What’s more, when underpaid workers and others receive food-stamps, they often spend them at Walmart and other discount retailers.

An April 15 article appearing in Forbes magazine reports that “Walmart Workers Cost Taxpayers $6.2 Billion in Federal Assistance.”   The article is based on findings of a new study by Americans for Tax Fairness, which estimates that a single Walmart supercenter costs US taxpayers as much as $900,000 and $1.75 million annually, because Walmart pays its employees so poorly that, to meet their needs, many end up relying on food stamps, Medicaid, and low-income housing.

Similar reports released last fall showed that American taxpayers also foot nearly $7 billion of the annual labor costs at McDonald’s and other leading fast-food companies.

Meanwhile, Walmart is thought to be the single biggest corporate beneficiary of food-stamp spending.  The Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal reported last year that the retailer received as much as 18 percent of all the food-stamp dollars spent.  That amounts to $14 billion annually.   Walmart’s total profits were $17 billion in 2013.

Millions of Americans experience “food insecurity”—meaning they do not know where their next meal is coming from.  An astonishing 1 in 7 Americans (47 million people) rely on food-stamps these days.  Even that figure doesn’t represent the number of Americans who are hungry.  Many elderly people who qualify for food stamps refuse to sign up for them because of their pride, according to Eli Saslow, whose reporting on American hunger for the Washington Post has just won the Pulitzer Prize.

I urge you to read or listen to Krissy Clark’s eye-opening 3-part series, “The Secret Life of a Food Stamp,”

Part 1: ‘The Secret Life of a Food Stamp’
Part 2: ‘Save Money, Live Better.’
Part 3: ‘Hungry for Savings’

Only a combination of social pressure, individual choice, and political action can ensure more Americans a taste of the American feast.

Click on the red links for more information about this important issue.

Susan H. Douglas: She Collected the Stuff of American Politicking

Presidential portrait tray from the Susan Douglas Collection at Cornell University

Their heads on a platter: Presidential portrait tray.  Susan H. Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Susan Havey Douglas (1901-1962) was an affluent stay-at-home wife and mother whose husband, Damon G., ran a successful commercial construction firm in New Jersey.  Susan, a native of Yonkers, NY, had dropped out of college to marry her husband.  Damon was a graduate of Cornell, where he had studied engineering.

'William H Harrison and Reform' Portrait Textile from the campaign of 1840 (Courtesy Cornell University Library via the Commons on Flickr)

‘William H Harrison and Reform’: A piece of fabric incorporating political images from the ‘Log Cabin’ campaign of 1840. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

The Douglas’s children were Damon Jr., and two daughters, Sally and Susan.  The latter died of a streptococcus infection and spinal meningitis at the age of seven, a heartbreaking loss occurring in 1936.

GOP elephant bank from the 1900 presidential campaign.  Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

GOP elephant bank from the 1900 presidential campaign. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Mr Douglas was a serious collector of coins by then.  He wrote papers on numismatics and served as president of the New York Numismatic Society circa 1940.  A passion for collecting gripped the family.  Around 1941, his wife, ultimately the more notable collector, began visiting curio shops with her son to help him fill out his “Lincoln and Indian penny-board collection.”  There, she began noticing campaign memorabilia, which became her special branch of collecting.

Campaign 'coins' from the 1830s, expressing various views of Andrew Jackson and his monetary policies.  Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Campaign ‘coins’ from the 1830s, expressing various views, some satirical, of Andrew Jackson and his controversial money policies. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.  One coin depicts Jackson as a Roman emperor; another, as a pirate, waving a saber in one hand and bag of gold in the other, proclaiming, “I take the responsibility.”

Among the first items Douglas bought were old campaign medals, which resemble coins. They were but one of many types of political objects she collected over the next twenty years.  Wonderful in its size and range, her collection eventually encompassed 5,500 items, including sheet music, engravings, hair combs, convention ribbons, political torches, posters, lunch pails, pin boxes, tea trays, even beer glasses stamped with the images of political heroes and wannabees.  (I have often featured pictures from her collection on my blog.)

Snuff boxes and campaign medals bearing the image of Zachary Taylor, along with other political ephemera dating from the late 1840s.

Snuff boxes and campaign medals bearing the image of Zachary Taylor, along with other political ephemera dating from the late 1840s.

Beginning at a time when few collectors cared about these items, Douglas amassed a large and important body of American political memorabilia, including some of the earliest campaign trinkets ever made.  Dating from the late 1820s-1840, these early objects were invented at a time when American politics was becoming more thoroughly democratized, and industrial advances made it possible to produce cheap objects to mobilize the masses and build political community.  Ultimately, Douglas’s collection spanned an entire century, containing items up through the 1940s.

Candle lantern from the McKinley-Roosevelt campaign, stamped with the slogan "Four Years More of the Full Dinner Pail."  Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Candle lantern from the McKinley-Roosevelt campaign, stamped with the slogan “Four Years More of the Full Dinner Pail.” Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

Such objects expressed the bonds between political leaders and their followers, providing voters with a tangible means to express opinions and loyalties.  Ephemeral objects that instead proved surprisingly long-lasting, the items preserve by-gone political ideas and passions, while offering clues to how politics featured in the lives of ordinary people.  As political ideas and customs have changed, so too have the props of political theater.

By the 1950s, the caliber and breadth of Mrs Douglas’s collection had gained recognition.  In 1952, the US State Department borrowed 500 items for a government-sponsored exhibition to be displayed in London at the Pan American Building.  According to the Mason City Globe Gazette, which interviewed Mrs Douglas in 1956, “17,000 Britons visited the exhibit, which portrayed political Americans and was designed to help Britons understand the Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign then underway.”

In the late 1950s, Mrs Douglas sold her collection of political Americana to Cornell University Library.  She died in Orange, New Jersey on April 14, 1962.  Her collection has been digitized and is freely accessible to the public online.

A canvas bag, circa 1920, the year American women won the right to vote.  Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.

A canvas bag, circa 1920, the year American women won the right to vote. Susan H Douglas Collection of Political Americana, Cornell University Library.  Did Mrs Douglas use this when she was young?

Left unanswered is what motivated Douglas as a collector.  Why did she have such a passion for political things?  Why was she so in love with the ‘love affair” that is part of every presidential campaign?  Douglas came of age in 1920, just as the long campaign to secure women’s right to vote reached its glorious culmination.  When the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified that year, she became part of the first generation of American women free to vote and participate in politics on an equal footing.  Whatever the source of Douglas’s enthusiasm, it continues to light up our sense of political tradition.

© 2014 Susan Barsy.

Doings

William Russell Birch, A view of the Capitol at Washington (c 1800), courtesy of the Library of Congress

I haven’t been posting on politics lately.  In January, I decided that my primary goal this year would be to send off a book that I’ve written about 19th-century Washington, which a publisher has told me can be published, provided I make some time-consuming revisions.

Still, I hope to keep this blog from going dormant entirely, particularly because my posts on party politics continue to attract readers.  My original wish in starting the blog—which was to share my everyday analysis of contemporary political events—is something I continually long to do.  With any luck, I will be able to manage the occasional post.

In the meantime, accept my thanks for your continuing interest.  If you don’t already subscribe, you may wish to do so using the form at right.  It’s a safe and convenient way to keep up with any new posts.

Sincerely,
Susan Barsy, PhD


Image:
William Russell Birch, “A view of the Capitol of Washington before it was burnt down by the British” (c 1800), from this source.

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