It's time to take a lesson from German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and ask what he might think about hunger in America. Bismarck (1815 -- 1898) was a German statesman who unified numerous German states into the powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership. Historians credit him with creating "revolutionary conservatism," a policy that would serve America well.
Bismarck was an aristocratic Prussian, supreme pragmatist and staunch conservative; above all, he was a shrewd student of the human condition. He understood that the true grievance of the worker was "the insecurity of his existence... If he falls into poverty, even if only through a prolonged illness, he is then completely helpless." Bismarck wisely recognized that the traditional avenue of relief, private charity, was woefully inadequate to effectively respond to large scale human need; he believed government intervention was absolutely necessary to guarantee health, reasonable comfort, and financial security for the German people. He said as much when he stated "the usual help for the poor...leaves a lot to be desired."
Bismarck was no dewy-eyed liberal or dreamer about a national utopia. He shrewdly understood that healthy, well fed people were good politics, good business, and essential to national security. Bismarck studied social welfare programs that began as early as the 1840s in Prussia and Saxony and used their concepts to engineer the first modern national welfare state. He introduced old age pensions, accident insurance, universal medical care (with an emphasis on maternal-child healthcare that launched a remarkable midwifery program and dramatically reduced infant mortality and post-partum deaths) and unemployment insurance. Bismarck's paternalistic government funded programs won the support of German industrialists because these programs served the Empire's imperialistic aims -- and those same aims served their own capitalistic interests as well.
I'm repeatedly reminded of Bismarck as I watch American conservatives attack one social welfare program after another. The virulence of these attacks has not lessened; in fact it seems to have increased despite the fact that poverty and hunger are chronic and widespread. Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger relief organization, reports that 1 in 6 Americans live with hunger daily. In 2010 Feeding America fed 37 million Americans, 14 million of whom were children. In the state of Maine alone, 68,950 children, nearly 25 percent of kids under the age of 18 live with chronic hunger.
I recently moved from Chicago to southern coastal Maine and found myself in a county where American conservative ideology is playing out in a heated local debate about whether tax dollars should be used to assist a local food pantry feed hungry people in Maine. The specific issue in my county concerns the York County Commissioners' decision to not release budgeted taxpayer dollars to the local York Food Pantry and Shelter in Alfred. Although these funds were expressly budgeted for this purpose, the Commissioners argue they possess discretionary judgment over how all the funds are applied; in their wisdom they've chosen to use the funds to create aerial maps of the county rather than help the indigent.
Although many people are outraged by the Commission's actions, there are a surprising number of people who are not. These folks are quite emphatic in their belief that tax dollars should not be used to support not-for-profit organizations that provide charitable services. These people seem callously oblivious to the fact that we're talking about real people, their own neighbors, who cannot adequately feed themselves or their children. I believe these people are sadly representative of a large number of their fellow Americans. However, I also believe each and every one of them would sincerely profess to be a patriot and that they have no qualms about using tax dollars for national defense.
Here in Maine, just as elsewhere in America, many officials and too many voters have turned deaf ears and cold hearts to the heartbreak of poverty and hunger. In my opinion, the persistent failure to eradicate hunger in Maine and throughout all of America is not due to a lack of resources but rather a lack of morality. However, this idea gets us absolutely nowhere because conservatives reject morality as foundational to public policy unless, of course, it deals with sex. American conservatives pride themselves on hard-nosed fiscal responsibility and a robust support for muscular national security programs.
To move us into an area where we can find common ground I suggest we all take a long, hard look at Bismarck's "revolutionary conservatism" and use it redefine our ideas about national security. I've suggested to York County, and now suggest to the entire nation, that we completely change the language of our debate about how to respond to poverty and hunger in America. We need to move away from discussions about whether it is appropriate for tax revenues to fund social services or arguments about the moral duty of citizenship and ask instead whether there is a national defense justification for tax supported social services.
Bismarck understood poverty and hunger work together to eat away at the underbelly of national security. Bismarck knew that hungry people are not healthy, productive people; they are less likely to contribute to the economy as producers and consumers. They pose a public health problem, as do their children; they have more illnesses and disabilities and also their children do more poorly in school than well-fed children. Bismarck also knew that hungry people are desperate people and no nation is well served by a large underclass of desperate people. The facts are as true today as they were in the 1880s and we need to understand this with as much clarity and sense of purpose as Bismarck and the German people.
It is important to appreciate that at no time were Bismarck's social programs reviled as socialistic; instead they were seen as nationalistic and patriotic. They were also seen as anti-socialistic measures intended to blunt the rising tide of socialism.
German capitalists supported these social programs because they knew Germany could never elevate itself as a modern imperialist power without a healthy, educated working-class. The state and the industrialists also knew they needed to staunch the flow of immigrants to America where wages were higher but where welfare benefits did not exist. Their social welfare policies were successful and stalled German immigration to America. Germany never experienced as large a drain of skilled labor as many other European countries. In less than twenty-five years Germany became a major European power, the entire country prospered, and the German people enjoyed a level of security from cradle to grave unknown elsewhere.
Unfortunately for the destiny of untold millions, Germany locked itself into an arms race with Britain and when a Bosnian Serb assassinated Austria's Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo an entire rotten system of internecine politics and byzantine alliances exploded into the First World War. Germany was not a perfect society, of course; many complicated forces coursed through the veins and arteries of German history, culture, and Teutonic literature and philosophy and some would prove deadly. Nonetheless, Bismarck's successful social policies remain instructive.
British physicians had been discussing the deterioration of the health of working- class men since the mid-1800s but the nation paid scant attention until a government report released after the Boer War (1899-1902) reported that as many as 40-60% of the men who presented for military service were unfit to serve. The report sent shockwaves throughout Britain. The ravages of the Industrial Revolution, Britain's grossly inequitable distribution of wealth, and rampant endemic poverty among millions of the working poor finally took their collective national toll.
Foul air and water, bad and/or scarce food, squalid tenement living, no access to healthcare, lack of access to educational opportunities, and grueling working conditions stunted England's working poor. Millions of Britain's military-aged men were underweight, under-developed, and shorter than the sons of the wealthy elites. They suffered from tuberculosis, rickets, poor vision, heart disease, loss of teeth, and traumatic amputations caused by industrial accidents in Britain's thousands of unregulated mills, factories, and mines. They also had a higher prevalence of mental health issues consistent with grinding poverty. These statistics didn't even speak to the shocking poor health and high mortality rates of women and children. At the same period in time, Germany had the lowest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world.
Britain never effectively responded to this health crisis and the health of working-class men was just as alarming fourteen years later at the outset of World War I when British physicians found it necessary to reject 2 out of every 5 men for military service. In comparison, after growing up in Bismarck's Germany, most German men were extremely well fit for military service.
This failure to field an Army composed of a socioeconomically proportionate representation of British soldiers contributed to the astonishingly high number of casualties and deaths among Britain's healthy aristocratic and upper class males. Britain never recovered from this loss of its most educated men, the very men who had been groomed to be the future leaders of government and industry. It was the beginning of the end of empire and set the stage for the terrified and tired appeasement of Neville Chamberlain.
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