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Too Little - But Too Much

( Originally Published 1952 )

`There is little doubt that, if the nutritional level of our country can be raised to the point of an adequate diet for all, we would consume every pound of food our farms can produce.'

Committee on Agriculture,

House of Representatives

August 18, 1947.

'Bumper crop: Signal of Trouble' U.S. News & World Report February 24, 1950.

WHILE AMERICANS PRODUCE SO MUCH LESS THAN THEY MIGHT and would, they still produce more than they can buy. And while there is too little food, too little clothing and too little of everything else for millions of them, there always seems to be too much, there is always more than farmers and manufacturers can sell.

Americans need at least one-half more food than they are able to buy, if everyone is to have adequate nourishment; and still much more if everyone is to have the really good and well-balanced diet the nation has come to consider normal. For, even in the United States, people are 'still dying from the effects of nutritional deficiency', the Federal Security Administrator reported to the President in 1948; and in many more 'the widespread effect of inadequate diets' is 'evident in poor resistance to disease'.

Yet there is always dread of calamity when bumper crops ripen in the fields. Speculators and farmers fear that prices will break. Government fears it may have to spend still more buying up surpluses to avoid disaster in the markets. And there are signs of relief at reassuring news from Washington like this, of July 7, 1949: 'The weatherman and crop-destroying bugs appear to be teaming up to prevent the price-depressing grain Surplus which seemed inevitable only a few weeks ago'; or, 'the big wind that hit the Corn Belt may have saved a lot of people a lot of headaches. It lopped about 125 million buShels off this year's harvest.' (Business Week, November 19, 1949.)

Too little, but too much: those remain the two sides of the nation's food problem.

`We pride ourselves on being the best-fed nation in the world', Fred Bailey, executive director of National Agricultural Research, Inc., `one of America's leading authorities on the nation's food supply', wrote in an article, 'We Feed Our Hogs Better Than Our Children', in the American Magazine of October 1947. 'This is a smug assertion which is not borne out by the facts. In consumption of milk and milk products, one of the essentials of good diet, we rank thirteenth among the nations.. . . In the consumption of meats, another essential of good diet, we rank sixth. . . . In protein consumption, animal and vegetable, America ranks in twelfth place, along with Soviet Russia, Manchuria and Sweden. .

`Selective service figures showed that 3.2 per cent of the registrants had specific nutritional defects, such as beriberi, scurvy, pellagra, rickets, night blindness, or were seriously underweight . . . 43 per cent of registrants had defects of eyes, teeth, blood vessels, and other ailments partly traceable to nutritional deficiency.'

Three-fourths of the nation's children suffer from undernourishment', a study of Pennsylvania State College established according to Associated Press on December 29, 195o.

The 'average American' is supposed to eat about 4 pounds of food a day, according to government statistics. But that figure does not tell what or how much of various foods any given social group actually eats. It refers to 'apparent consumption' or 'food disappearance' from the nation's farms and is greatly inflated by waste on the way from farm to stomach; for waste amounts to 'about 25 per cent of the nation's total food supply', the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated on May 25, 1946.

Moreover, this average includes people who over eat and others who do not get enough. On the one hand, men and women like the rotund glutton in front of a laden dinner table on magazine advertisements of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company with the caption 'Lengthening His Waistline—Shortening His Lifeline' who, 'like one out of every four people in our country today, weighs more than he should' and who alarm the life insurance companies because they will probably die before their time. On the other hand the average includes that one-third of the population which Senator Ralph Flanders, referring to rich New York City in September 1947, called 'drastically affected by the high food costs'.

The differences even in quantitative food consumption have always been great in America. In 1941, the last time the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a study on the subject, 'average' consumption ranged from barely 2.7 pounds a day among the one-fifth of the nation in the lowest income group to 5.7 pounds a day among the highest-earning one-twentieth of the people. But the well-to-do eat not only over twice as much in quantity as the poor; they eat much more than twice as well in terms of essential and beneficial foodstuffs. The Government study found that they consumed 3.6 times as much meat, poultry and fish; 2.8 times as much milk, cheese and other dairy products; 4 times more fresh vegetables; 7.5 times as many vitamin-rich citrus fruits and tomatoes; and 2.1 times as many eggs.

These differences of pre-war times have not become less marked. Despite record harvests, the 'nutrients available for civilian consumption per person per day' increased only a little in some respects and actually fell off in others since 1941, as shown by the Joint Committee on the Economic Report in 1949. 'While hi per cent more protein became available since then for the 'average' American and 4.6 per cent more Vitamin A, of food energy by calories there is 1.8 per cent less, of carbohydrates 1.7 per cent less, and of fats z.8 per cent less. The cost of food has more than doubled since 1941, and many of the low incomes have lagged behind the upsurge of the cost of living; so that the difference in food consumption between the well-to-do and poor 'may well have become even more pronounced.

A Congressional investigation of the post-war plight of millions of 'Americans showed the extent of undernourishment. 'Approximately 2,500000 residents of New York City—not to mention persons in other congested high price areas throughout the nation—face undernourishment and deficiency diets because of the inflated costs of food', wrote the Christian Science Monitor on September 26, 1947. 'This is the grim, the outstanding evidence, produced by the four-day hearing on food prices conducted by the eastern sub-committee of a joint Congressional committee'.

'One-third of the city's babies, born and unborn, suffer from malnutrition as the result of high prices', the Rt. Rev. Charles K. Gilbert, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, told the Congressional Committee. (New York World Telegram, September 25, 1947). And about the ministers of his own church: 'they are unable to buy sufficient food and clothing for their families'.

It is not only in the big cities that so many have been suffering in the midst of post-war prosperity. 'A substantial part of the urban population of the country is finding it difficult or impossible to make ends meet', the Joint Committee stated. Its journey 'revealed that our high general average of production and consumption is unequally distributed. . . There was no region in which this condition was not found to an extent that made it a matter of real concern.

About a much-quoted prosperity symptom, the great increase in the nation's total meat consumption, the Committee reported : Whereas the Nation as a whole has been consuming 3o pounds per capita per year more than at any other recent period of its history, that had no bearing whatever on the difficulties encountered in the low income groups. . . . The urban low income groups appear to us to be getting less than is commonly considered necessary for health and growth, particularly of the children.' On January 4,1952, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated that during 1951 Americans 'ate less meat than in any of the past nine years', including those of the war.

Food prices are much too high, the Committee found. But whose fault is it? The farmers? Of every dollar the consumer spends on food, the farmer gets only about 54 cents, while most of the other 46 cents go to the food processors and retailers. The farmers' share is indeed io cents larger than it was in 1941 and 14 cents larger than during the thirties; but the farmers cannot be blamed for trying to make up for the desperately lean times they had during, and actually long before, the Great Depression. Even now, the average per capita income of farm families is only about one-half as high as that of the average non-farm family, while during the depression it was only one-quarter of the non-farm family's income.

Most of the blame lies with the food processing industries through which the bulk of all grain, meat, dairy products and most other food, expensively advertised and packaged, passes to the consumer's table. The profits of these predominantly large corporations, the Joint Committee reported, rose 212 per cent since before the war.

The combined profits of the seven giant dairy companies with their near-monopoly positions in many big cities went up from 12.5 per cent of their capital assets before the war to 29.0 per cent in 1946. Those of the eight meat-packing giants rose from 6.9 per cent to 21.0 per cent. The fourteen other mammoth food-processing corporations, mainly bakery concerns, increased their profits from 15.8 per cent to 27.6 per cent. From 1946 to 1947 the profits of the food processors rose another one-third. But 1947 was the year when the Rt. Rev. Bishop Gilbert of New York, having warned of the malnutrition of one-third of New York's babies, told the Joint Committee: 'We have to find a way to encourage full-scale production, and if high profits interfere I believe in all fairness something should be done about it.'

The great food distribution chains, too, bear a large share of the blame for high prices. Eight of them raised their profits from 12.9 per cent in 1940 to 29.7 per cent in 1946. With their annual sales volume of well over $4 billion, they control over one-sixth of the nation's total retail food business, and an even larger share in many densely populated regions.

Prices and profits have continued to rise since then. Many people have been forced to buy less food in the late forties and early fifties than in the peak consumption year of 1946. And when Washington, under the anti-trust laws, began to prosecute the foremost retail chain, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company—'an industrial giant that some people consider a shining monument to the uniquely American institution of free enterprise and others as a monopolistic octopus which has achieved unparalleled power by crushing its competitors in ruthless disregard of the anti-trust laws' (New York Times, December 11, 1949) there was little hope of the Government winning its case. For Big Business mobilized its publicity apparatus in protection of the concern, echoing the spokesman of 'A & P' who declared that `this action is a threat to the welfare and living standards of every American citizen'.

Congress took no action to live up to the truth it had put on the statute book in the Research and Marketing Act of 1946—that 'the expansion of consumption, rather than the limitation of production, is the basic answer to our problems'. Nor did it act on the findings its Committee on Agriculture announced on August 18, 1947: 'there is little doubt that, if the nutritional level of our economy can be raised to the point of an adequate diet for all, we would consume every pound of food our farms can produce'.

Congress preferred to accept the strangely incongruous afterthought with which this Committee followed up its own challenging words: `That goal cannot be achieved overnight, and in the meantime the consumers and the producers of food . . . are faced with the realities of existing problems ... gearing our immediate post-war agricultural production to the somewhat reduced post-war consumption level in the country. . .

The hearings that followed led to nothing—except the strongest possible reaffirmation of the facts that both the capacities of American food production and the needs of American consumers are still unlimited. Some expert witnesses stated that 'production could be increased to two or three times the wartime level'. And the Committee observed in its report that 'Americans have demonstrated an appetite for meat, eggs, fruits, dairy products and other wholesome foods that completely disregarded all previous conceptions of what they ought to want (so that) at the present time the only answer seems to be that no one knows how much food the American people will consume if they have the money to buy it. . . '

By 1949 the cry in the markets was once more: Too much food ahead', as U.S. News & World Report entitled an article on May 6 about the problem 'of an output of farm products greater than the market can absorb at what is regarded as a fair level of prices'. And again on August 19, 1949: 'Farm problem is getting bigger. U.S. is unable to eat up, sell or give away all the food being produced.'

Things did not change from the pre-war depression days when Lincoln Steffens, the great social reformer, wrote: 'Think of a civilization in which a good crop of breadstuff is bad news.'

Another familiar aspect of the dilemma Too Little But Too Much has returned to the American scene: here and there food has been destroyed, as in the depression, while starvation reigns in many countries and millions of American citizens remain undernourished.

Milk was poured away because so many families did not have the money to buy it. 'A distressing phenomenon of the milk situation was the actual destruction at various times and at various places of some surplus supply of milk', the Joint Committee reported about its investigation into the high prices of food in 1948.

Potatoes were destroyed while science developed new methods of growing larger potato harvests. 'Twenty million bushels of potatoes in the United States were left in the ground last year to rot or were otherwise destroyed', the New York Herald Tribune wrote on August 6, 1947—a few weeks after it reported about new potential blessings for a food-hungry world in the form of pest controls: Two new chemical compounds are expected to increase this year's potato crop, despite current acreage reductions.'

In 1950, Secretary of Agriculture Charles Brannan 'authorized the "dumping." of up to 40,000,000 bushels of surplus potatoes which the government will be forced to buy to support prices . . . the biggest food-dumping program since the depression of the 1930's' (United Press, February 6). 'Mr Brannan promised that the government "will not allow" potatoes to be stacked up, doused with gasoline and destroyed outright. But he admitted there was nothing to keep the farmer or dealer from leaving them to rot. He said the government will spend about $8 million for potatoes this year, even with the dumping program.' However, to give them free to people who need them but cannot buy more at the disproportionately high prices charged by the retail trade would be too expensive. 'If the government were forced to deliver them to people who would accept them free it would cost another $20 million.'

Vegetables were destroyed since wholesale prices were much too low to make it worthwhile for the farmers to harvest them, and retail prices much too high for the housewives to buy more. 'Jersey Farmers Plough Under Vegetables While New Yorkers Pay "Scarcity" Prices', read a typical headline in July 1947. 'Wayne County growers are dumping about 100,000 crates of celery with a retail value of at least $600,000 because prices offered to farmers are below cost' (Associated Press, January 10, 1948). 'Because of a glutted market, tons of vegetables were recently burned in Cleveland, and the poor carried some away' (Detroit Free Press, September z, 1948).

Citrus fruit was destroyed by the hundreds of millions while expecting mothers, children and workers were suffering a dangerous shortage of vitamin C. 'Wasted grapefruit may total six million boxes this year', wrote the Wall Street journal on May 18, 1948, 'an estimated four million boxes were left unpicked last season'. 'Nearly half the children in Florida's richest fruit belt are short of Vitamin C, health officers report', read an Associated Press message on August 14, 1951.

So it has been going on year after year. How to prevent the farmers from producing too much, how to make them restrict their output more thoroughly has been one of the major domestic problems during the years that were supposed to secure peace through plenty.

`Food Surplus Looms As Post-War Worry', was a typical New York Times headline as early as January 6, 1946—side by side with reports about acute hunger in Europe, Asia and elsewhere—over an official warning of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that American farmers would be 'plagued with excess capacity, surplus supplies, and a persistent downward pressure on prices' if technological innovations 'continue to pour forth at the accelerated rate at which they have in recent years'.

The application of new technology to agriculture harms the economic order of America as blight and locust, drought and flood harm that of other nations; for, different from industry, agriculture is not controlled by a handful of monopolistic business corporations that can restrain the application of technological progress to production.

'Scientific farming is turning out to be too good', U.S. News & World Report wrote on January 7, 1949. 'Its success is increasing, not reducing, the farm problem. New methods, laboratory and field tested, mean richer soil, simpler cultivation, bigger and better harvests in most crops. Trouble is too much food. Big yields, science-induced, are to aggravate returning problems of farm surpluses. . . 'What complicates the problem of surpluses even more is the fact that the new approach builds up the soil at the same time that it boosts yields.'

The big harvests had to be curbed more and more vigorously. `Government Asks Farmers To Cut Wheat Plantings For 1949 By 8 Per Cent', reported the press on July 23, 1948. The Government today ordered sharp cuts in next year's corn and rice plantings (by 12.9 per cent and 13.7 per cent, respectively), in a move to prevent new surpluses' (Associated Press, December 3o, 1949). 'Twenty Per Cent Cut Ordered In Cotton Acreage' (United Press, December 2, 1949). `Keeping Farm Crops Down: Job That Baffles Planners' (U.S. News & World Report, December 23, 1949). 'Cut In Acreage Of U.S. Grains Of Little Help', wrote the New York Herald Tribune on January 9, 195o: 'Cognizant of the threat of additional surpluses of grains as well as other commodities, the government fixed the wheat acreage for 1950 at 68,900,00o acres, a reduction of around 17 per cent below the 1949 total.'

But even when the farmers were forced to do their bit to fight against 'too much food' and thus to help maintain the economic order through curtailing their output in harmony with the examples of steel and other basic industries, the subversive forces of sun and rain still might endanger the effort of Government. 'The farmers cooperated handsomely', the New York Times wrote on April 11, 195o, referring to acreage reductions, 'but it soon became apparent that nature was in no mood to follow suit. Growing conditions were so favorable in December. . ? In this case at least, nature seemed to hear the prayers of those who feared plentiful harvests, and the paper was soon able to report: The remarkably favorable prospects with which the crop went into the winter, have, it appears, been largely nullified in recent weeks by dry weather, dust storms and insect damage which have ravaged the middle and south portions of the Great Plains. . .

Yet with all the destruction of food, the restrictions of acreage and the minor local damages from bad weather in the unusually long spell of favourable growing seasons that made America forget the possibility of another cycle of lean harvests, consumers did not benefit from what bounty nature was still permitted to bestow upon the country. Food prices have continued to rise and it has been Government policy to keep them high in order to secure the farm vote for the Democratic Party and to keep the generally curbed economy on an even keel. 'Because of the price-support activities, consumers will receive little in the way of price concessions ordinarily resulting from excessively large crop yields', the New York Times wrote on September 1, 1949. 'Instead, the excess supplies will be largely impounded by the Government and added to the already large stocks.

It is not surprising, therefore, that too little of the people's incomes is left for expenditures other than food, that only 12 1/2 per cent of America's average family budget has been available for clothing in recent years—almost one-fifth less than at the height of the war, when clothing prices were kept low by Government controls.

Since the Great Depression the Government has published no comparative studies of what Americans in various income groups spend on clothing, housing, personal and medical care, recreation and so forth. But the nation's total deficiencies can be roughly calculated on the basis of the unfilled needs that existed at the time of the last official investigation in 1935-6, taking into account the increase that has since taken place in the population and in the total volume of available consumers' goods and services.

To make it possible for every family to attain 'modest but adequate' living standards, as defined by the Government, the nation as a whole would have to have each year: at least 45 per cent more clothing; Go per cent more housing, furniture, etc.; 6o per cent more medical care; 70 per cent more means for private education; and 52 per cent more facilities for recreation. Moreover, those additional supplies would have to go exclusively to the poorest parts of the population.

For a close-up view of the deficiencies Americans have been suffering at the very time when production cuts and subsidized exports were necessary to prevent the accumulation of unsaleable surpluses there is an interesting official illustration: the U.S. Department of Labor's detailed account of the consumers' goods and services required for a model 'City Worker's Family Budget' that would give a family of four the 'necessary minimum to meet the conventional and social as well as biological needs'.

This model budget may seem luxurious by many other nations' standards, but it is modest indeed by those of the world's richest country, and the following chapter will show that it goes beyond the means of half of the American people.

On clothing, this budget allows the father of the family an overcoat every 6 years and 8 months; a topcoat every 1o years, a raincoat every 12 1/2 years, a sweater every 2 years and to months, a jacket every 5 years and 3 months, a wool suit every 2 years and 3 months, and so on. His wife should get a felt hat every 11 months and a straw hat, beret or head scarf each year; a heavy winter coat with some fur every 6 years and 3 months, and one without fur every 8 years and 4 months; a light coat every 4 years and 4 months; a raincoat every too years (the budget provides for '0.01 piece per year'); a woollen sweater every 2 years and 8 months and a cotton sweater every i6 years and 8 months; a wool suit every 9 years, a wool dress every 5 years and 7 months, four cheap dresses or house dresses of cotton or rayon a year; a bathrobe every 20 years, etc. The clothing budgets for son and daughter are on a similar scale.

The home furnishings budget allows for one-seventeenth each year of the purchase price of the following cheap household equipment: a living room 'davenport' set of two chairs and one sofa, two ordinary chairs, a table, desk and bookcase; a bedroom set with bed, chest and dresser, an extra chest, extra bed, bedspring and cot; a kitchen with 'dinette' set, an extra chair, kitchen table and cabinet.

Of other 'durable goods' the family should be able to buy a cooking stove, refrigerator and vacuum cleaner every 16 years and 7 months, a washing machine every 14 years, ironing and sewing machines every century ('0.01 per year'), a lamp every 5 years, an electric fan every 33 years, an electric toaster every 25 years.

The family's recreational expenses are to provide for a daily newspaper and 32 magazines a year, presumably cheap `comics'; one book a year, one cinema visit every three weeks for the parents and daughter and every two weeks for the son; one ticket a year for each family member for 'plays, concerts or sports events', and the purchase of a radio set every 9 years.

There is no provision for vacations. The family is supposed to buy 9 cigarettes a day (the national average for two adults is 22 cigarettes actually bought each day). One telephone call every third day and a stamp for a 3-cent letter every sixth day round off 'miscellaneous' expenses.

The health budget for the family of four permits 4 annual doctor's calls at their home and 11 at his office, a minor surgical operation every 3 years, one day's nursing service per year, 1 tooth extraction and 4 fillings a year, a total of 3 doctor's prescriptions a year, and the equivalent of twenty-four cigarettes' worth a week, $0.24, for the family's 'drugs and medical supplies'.

The 'personal care' budget, finally, allows the husband a haircut every 25 days, a razor and shaving brush every 5 years, a razor blade every 9 days, shaving soap every 10 weeks; and the wife a haircut every 3 months, a 'finger wave' every 18 weeks, a 'permanent' every 20 months, one box of face powder and one jar of cold cream a year, a rouge compact every 2 years, one 'small' lipstick a year, a bottle of hand lotion every 5 years, one bottle of nail polish a year, a jar of deodorant ('don't be half safe', the advertisements warn) every 8 months; and for the entire family one cake of soap every 5 1/2 days, a tube of toothpaste every 5 weeks, one toothbrush each every 8 months, a comb a year and one hairbrush every z years.

Yet this official 'model' budget, out of the reach of half of all American households, was scarcely a realistic estimate of what a family with an income of $3,200 a year could actually have afforded to buy in 1948, when the Department of Labor calculated the underlying cost. The goods it took into account were predominantly of inferior quality and the budgeted prices lower than in most stores. Moreover, it assumed a degree of spartan budgeting discipline that cannot be expected from most American families in an atmosphere of relentless advertising pressure for much unnecessary and unbudgeted spending; of gambling that takes at least $15 billion, as much as the nation's annual housing bill; and of drinking, at the rate of $9 billion worth of alcohol a year, as much as the nation's total clothing bill.

It is true that the United States has 105 million wireless receivers and some 40 million motor cars (three-quarters of them needed to connect farms with distant markets, take salesmen on their rounds, and get people to and from their work and shopping for lack of other transport), 15 million refrigerators, 18 million vacuum cleaners and probably as many washing machines—in each case more than exist in the rest of the world.

Yet the wondrous thing about the United States is not the large volume of goods the people produce and own. It is the infinitely greater volume they might produce and enjoy. For nowhere on earth is there another nation that has such possibilities of raising its production of food and everything else so much, so easily, so soon—but that actually restricts its production so much.

To increase the output of food two- or three-fold, as America well might, other nations which can and do aspire at such aims must first spend years on the education of their farmers in modern agricultural methods, clear, drain or irrigate fresh land and link it to the cities by new roads and railways, and endure enormous sacrifices to produce or import the necessary farm equipment.

To multiply their output of consumers' goods, as it is within the possibility of America, other nations must first save or borrow, pull in their belts and do very much without for decades or even a generation or two, while they set up the industries to make all the production equipment they need and while they must spare much of their goods for export, to pay for what they need from abroad for such development work.

Only the United States could do away with her poverty and want in a matter of years and without harsh sacrifice—merely by giving her economy the go-ahead signal for unlimited production on all the ready land, in all the mines and factories, with all the hands, machines and techniques that are waiting to supply the many millions of needy consumers.

That this has not been done—that it is in fact being prevented by corporate and government power—makes America's record of production and consumption so condemnatory of her economic order—enviable though her actual output may appear to less fortunate nations in Asia, Latin America, Africa and Europe.

The World The Dollar Built:
The World The Dollar Built

Corporate Power

The Captive Audience

Business Of Government

The Dangerous Drift

America Needs Foreign Aid

The Urge To Arm

Cold War At Home

Too Little - But Too Much

Income Pyramid

Read More Articles About: The World The Dollar Built

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