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America: Rumors of Food Riots, Realities of Warby Wendy McElroy
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spent $80M to fortify federal buildings in New York apparently in preparation for civil disturbances and possible food riots on November 1st. The DHS plans included armed private guards who would protect IRS and other buildings against attack by fellow Americans.
Other officials joined in ringing an alarm bell. Margarette Purvis, head of New York City's Food Bank – the largest one in the nation – also suggested that food riots were likely to break out in NYC. In a well-timed interview with Salon (10/29/13), Purvis hinted she might not even be averse to unrest. Salon reported, “Rather than 'trying to raise a dollar' to avert disaster privately, she [Purvis] said, a solution will require Americans to 'raise their voices', because 'the avenue has to be activism'.”
The proximate cause of the expected unrest was November 1st cuts to the food stamp program, which resulted from the expiration of a 2009 stimulus bill. The New York Times estimated that benefits for a family of four will fall $36 a month; for a single adult, it will fall $11. The most current data available (July) indicates that nearly 48 million Americans are on food stamps, or approximately one-seventh of the population. More reductions are expected over coming months as a result of Congressional renegotiations on a farm bill.
It is difficult to know how seriously to take the fact that the term “food riots” has entered the vocabulary of the American media and its bureaucrats. Both parties have a vested interest in creating panics. The media wants ratings and government wants an excuse for more social control. But a few aspects of the food riot talk seem clear enough.
The government seems to have been shaken by a glitch that occurred last month, bringing down part of the Electronic Benefits Transfer System (EBT); the system enables electronic food stamps. When recipients were not allowed to 'purchase' food, they flooded twitter with threats of rioting. When two Wal-Marts in Louisiana allowed purchases even though they could not verify the e-balance on the EBT cards, the stores were “legally looted”; that is, people with next to no balance stripped them of hundreds of dollars in goods. One woman with a balance of .49 cents tried to 'buy' $700 worth but was thwarted when EBT reconnected.
In short, a limited and temporary breakdown in EBT caused looting to break out and riots to be threatened. What would have emerged from a nationwide and permanent disruption?
But the real danger is more likely to come from a government clamp down rather than from rioting. The cut backs have not been severe. Heritage Foundation policy analyst Rachel Sheffield explained that food stamps is “one of 80 federal means-tested programs that provide food, housing, medical care to poor and low income Americans.” And the government certainly continues to promote the program. An October 16th, 2013 Cato study entitled “The Food Stamp Program Needs Reform” found that over $41.3 million was being spent annually to market food stamps to prospective recipients.
Nevertheless, the government is not likely to waste a good crisis.
After all, a government clamp down and huge growth of bureaucracy was what happened in the wake of the last food riots that haunted New York City in 1917. In an interview with a Lower East Side housewife, the New York Times identified a main cause of the brewing trouble. Food for her family had risen from an average of $22 a month in 1916; the average monthly salary was reportedly $40. By 1917, the same food had risen to $59.
To protest soaring prices, about 400 women stormed City Hall, with babies in arms. A mass meeting was held at the Socialist Party headquarters where the Mothers’ Anti-High Price League was formed. They immediately demanded the “city, state and national governments” provide $1M in tax dollars to establish municipal stores through which the government would buy food and distribute it at regulated prices; another $1M was demanded for a public school lunch program. Other protest tactics continued. A February 23, 1917 New York Times article entitled “Food Seizure by Commissioner, Governor’s Plan,” described the protesters attacking food retailers and their customers. They invaded poultry markets and destroyed the chickens sold there. “Through Pitt, Ludlow, Rivington, Essex, Suffolk and all of the east side streets the crowd surged,” the article declared, “passing from one shop to another… waving the heads and wings and mutilated bodies of chickens.”
As protests spread to several other cities, President Woodrow Wilson authorized an investigation into food prices. Ultimately, he launched a campaign against inflation, which was largely fueled by America's entry into WWI on April 16th, 1917. To fight inflation, Wilson created new government agencies with authority over prices and wages. For example, the Food Administration was established and empowered by the Lever Food Control Bill. The Bill placed fuel and food under federal regulation. In times of emergency, Wilson could exercise what his Congressional critics called “dictatorial powers.”
The many new government agencies were unquestionably war measures. But their creation was greatly facilitated by the grassroots demand for cheap food and for a government rescue which had sparked spreading riots only months before. Wilson had not wasted a good crisis.
If I were a conspiracy advocate, I would suspect a crisis is being manufactured today for political advantage. The Obama administration has aggressively encouraged an unprecedented mass dependency of Americans on entitlements. If food stamps are drastically reduced due to actions in the House of Representatives, then food riots may well occur, especially if Democrats encourage “activism.” Then Obama could point a finger of blame at the Republicans and do so just months before the 2014 election. Obama could also justify a surge in the police state that he has nurtured so assiduously.
It is a tried and true statist sleight of hand; government deliberately designs or co-opts a problem for which it masquerades as the remedy. And, as happened with Wilson, the tactic is often expediently associated with war.
[TDV Editor's Endnote: Food riots in the US are the sort of thing you want to watch on your television in a Latin American villa, not from your living room window in a US metropolitan area. Between the surveillance police state and the coming civil unrest from the soon-to-be cut-off dependent classes, there has never been a better time to look for greener pastures. Wendy has already reserved her spot in Galt's Gulch, Chile. It's time you got serious about joining her and the other freedom-seekers who have taken this vital step. Click here to learn more.]