In his 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan successfully marshaled racialized and gendered tropes to recast hunger as a problem of personal responsibility. Presidents Reagan and Clinton’s efforts to “reform” America’s safety net increased the number of people struggling with hunger, fostering the misguided belief that charity and corporate donations could tackle hunger better than a broad-based government response.

Anti-taxation activists and self-described “neo-liberal” economists joined with segregationists, anti-communist crusaders, and the so-called “Moral Majority” of evangelical Christians to restrain the growing power of the federal government and promote an alternative vision of the nation based on free enterprise and individualism.  

Echoing arguments from the late nineteenth century, this conservative coalition insisted that hunger was a problem of individuals, not of society, reframing calls for equal access to food as reflective of the failures of the poor to accept their personal responsibility. As President, Reagan imposed massive budget cuts, divesting from food assistance and forcing the growing charitable network to shoulder a greater share of the responsibility of feeding hungry Americans.  

The “Reagan Revolution” shifted the frames through which many Americans understood the causes and consequences of hunger. Democrats and Republicans alike embraced the rhetoric of personal responsibility, advancing new “reforms” to the social safety net. By the 1990s, a new bipartisan consensus focused on enacting “market-oriented reforms” in American domestic policy, ushering in a series of legislative compromises that fundamentally reshaped the food safety net.

Text Citation: Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty, 2nd Edition1 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).