Because I wanted to see where the sidewalks and the city end, I walked to East Little Rock.
First there is the thoroughly gentrified River Market area bustling with bars and banks, expensive restaurants and new construction, then a walk through the tangle of the Interstate 30 ramps. I am the only pedestrian. Finally there are the sidewalks, the wide expanse of manicured and watered lawns, the benches and trees of the beautiful Clinton Library, where East Second Street ends. You cannot go through the Library to get back to Second Street farther east without paying, so you go around, still on the wide sidewalks, then to Third Street, where the sidewalks lead to the Heifer Project’s giant center — like the Library, another architectural wonder.
Strolling through Heifer’s immaculate grounds, I realized that from this isolated center near downtown Little Rock help goes out to the poor in dozens of third-world countries — a worthy and noble project. Yet when the sidewalks and lawns end, just blocks east of the modern offices of the Chamber of Commerce, there is a stout and permanent barricade, as if to say “the East and the West shall not meet.” The barricaded Second Street picks back up, and here, after a world of commerce and food and drink, there is another third-world country, a forgotten and desolate world of dilapidated houses and abandoned cars, litter and empty streets. There are no sidewalks. The atmosphere of neglect and abandonment is tangible, almost palpable. It is eerily quiet here, and thoroughly depressing. There are no sounds of traffic and the only perceptible smell is that of a decaying cat in a gutter on this hot day in mid-July. This is the invisible other America that Michael Harrington wrote about in his book “The Other America” that began the War on Poverty. We are still losing.
The unemployment rate here is more than 16 percent. The poverty rate is more than 37 percent. The income level per capita is less than $15,000. In other terms, the income per capita in this area is 50.1 percent less than the Little Rock average. The median household income is 48.2 percent less than the Little Rock average. The poverty level in East Little Rock is 164 percent greater than the Little Rock average.
Poverty and crime are inextricably linked, anywhere. The estimated crime index here is 34 percent higher than the Little Rock average.
Violent crime is estimated to be 34 percent higher than the Little Rock average and the Little Rock violent crime rate is 270 percent higher than the Arkansas average.
The estimated property crime rate is 34 percent higher than the Little Rock average.
These statistics are about the same for South Little Rock, south of the Wilbur D. Mills freeway (Interstate 630), which, just as Interstate 30 does, splits areas away from each other, generally on racial lines.
And in the midst of this landscape, there is a Department of Human Services office. People go there, the unlucky and invisible ones, to apply for what once were called food stamps. (If you have a criminal record, you shouldn’t bother to go there.) Going in and out of fashion since inception in 1939, the program ended with the end of the Depression and the country’s gearing up fully for the WWII industry, then an 18-year lull of studies, reports and legislative proposals ensued. President Kennedy restarted the program in 1961.
The USDA’s idea for the first FSP is credited to various people, most notably Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and the program’s first administrator, Milo Perkins, who explained that “the program operated by permitting people on relief to buy orange stamps equal to their normal food expenditures; for every $1 worth of orange stamps purchased, 50 cents worth of blue stamps were received. Orange stamps could be used to buy any food; blue stamps could only be used to buy food determined by the Department to be surplus.” Perkins expressed his idea this way: “We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other. We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across that chasm.”
The plan was to improve agriculture while at the same time improve nutrition of poor people. The basics of the program have changed over time, but the theory remains the same: Poor people who cannot find jobs that pay enough to live need supplemental food assistance. You cannot live on food stamps alone, by any means; the benefits supplement what you already have. And the rules have changed so that there are hurdles, such as a verifiable income level, and the poor must provide documents that are investigated. Fraud is rare.
Now a phony food stamp war has been declared by certain politicians in Washington, where, we absolutely must remember, it takes $1.4 million to be elected to a House seat. Where once food assistance was tied to agricultural subsidies, the food stamp program would be cut from the farm subsidy program, and food stamp spending would be drastically reduced. It is as if Mitt Romney’s “makers and takers” theory has come alive.
The leader of the jihad on the poor, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), has said that the social safety net is at risk of becoming a “hammock.” He needs to take a walk on the East Side of Little Rock. And he must have repressed from his memory that disastrous debate and the election results.
Republican after Republican warned in the House debate on the farm bill that the food stamp program needed to be reformed. It’s not the economy anymore, stupid.
James B. Stewart wrote recently in the New York Times:
“But the bitter and much publicized debate leading up to the party-line vote tended to obscure what happened to the rest of the bill in the House: many of the same legislators up in arms about government spending and welfare abuse nonetheless voted for an increase in federal subsidies to wealthy farm interests.
” ‘What’s remarkable and extraordinary about the farm bill is that, at a time of record crop prices and federal deficits, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill to increase subsidies,’ Scott Faber, vice president for governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group, told me this week. ‘Only an evil genius could have dreamed this up.’
” ‘The debate over food stamps provided a smoke screen for the agriculture subsidies,’ he said. ‘Unless you read the fine print in the agricultural press, you wouldn’t have noticed.’ “
Even Jesus has arrived on the scene, and he has press spokesmen:
K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), said in response to a Democrat who noted that Jesus urged that we take care of the least among us: “Jesus didn’t really mean we should all do that together as a nation. I take Matthew 25 to mean me as an individual, not the U.S. government.”
Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), said: “The poor will always be with us” in his defense of cuts to the food stamp program, seeming to mean that we just forget them. Fincher, who has received more than $3 million in farm subsidies since 1999, including $70,000 in his re-election year of 2012, also quotes the Bible about those unwilling to work not eating.
He misses the point. It is still the economy.
A version of this column originally ran at Salon.com.