news commentary
June 11, 2004


Hungry children/dead babies: Remembering Reagan
by Rhiannon Ross

Ever notice how when someone dies s/he is often relegated to sainthood? How easy the slide into collective amnesia, especially if the deceased was a U.S. president?

But I remember.

When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency, I was a social service worker with the George Washington Carver Neighborhood and Day Care Center in Kansas City, MO. His Title XX funding cuts resulted in numerous children being removed from this government subsidized day care program. Some mothers, in order to meet income guidelines and continue eligibility, chose to work less than 40 hours a week or declined raises to already paltry salaries. I know because I helped them fill out the paperwork.

Overwhelmingly, women wanted to continue working. They did not wish to sit at home and collect a welfare check. But some were forced to quit work; they simply could not afford to pay for day care on such low wages; it barely paid their rent or house note.

And this wasn't the only social program budget cut resulting in drastic human consequences.

According to scholar Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States, during the Reagan years, "New requirements eliminated free school lunches for more than one million poor children, who depended on the meal for as much as half of their daily nutrition. Millions of children entered the ranks of the officially declared ‘poor’ and soon a quarter of the nation's children -- twelve million -- were living in poverty. In parts of Detroit, one-third of the children were dying before their first birthday, and the New York Times commented: 'Given what's happening to the hungry in America, this administration has cause only for shame.'"

Those also were the days when ketchup was officially declared a vegetable in school lunches and Reagan's wife was busy selecting a new china pattern for the White House.

I have other memories, too.

Like the time I participated in the 1981 labor march on Washington, D.C., organized by the AFL-CIO and supported by other national organizations such as the NAACP, NOW and the Gray Panthers. Scattered like jellybeans across the campus lawn with our colorful clothing, banners and signs, we marched for jobs and protested major funding cuts in social services and the transfer of these dollars into defense spending. But our cries that day fell on deaf ears; President Reagan was vacationing at Camp David.

As Zinn writes, "Unemployment grew in the Reagan years. In the year 1982, 30 million people were unemployed all or part of the year. One result was that over 16 million Americans lost medical insurance, which was often tied to holding a job."

Further, "There would be $140 billion of cuts in social programs through 1984 and an increase of $181 billion for "defense" in the same period. He also proposed tax cuts of $190 billion (most of this going to the wealthy)."

I also remember the fallout of Reaganomics. In the spring of 1989, I began working as an employment specialist for a job program for the homeless and near-homeless with Metropolitan Lutheran Ministry (MLM), again in Kansas City. Here's what Reagan's "trickle down" economic theory looks like at the bottom:

Our job clients were comprised of the mentally ill, the alcohol and drug-addicted, single mothers and working poor families, legal immigrants and a smattering of newly released convicts. They were people of all ages and color. But they shared one thing in common: They all needed a job.

They also needed food, clothing and shelter. One homeless man slept each night beneath his non-working car because all of his worldly belongings were packed inside. Another fellow slept beneath someone's back porch, unbeknownst to the owner. He coughed in a towel so he would not be discovered. Both held sporadic day jobs through an employment agency; both were white.

However, as Zinn points out, "At the end of the eighties, at least a third of African-American families fell below the official poverty level, and black unemployment seemed fixed at two and a half times that of whites, with young blacks out of work at the rate of 30 to 40 percent."

MLM's job program was a one-woman office (me) with a nearly nonexistent budget (church-funded). The perks of the program were free resumes, haircuts, cosmetics for the women, donated professional clothing (often outdated), and interview training. There was a private phone line in my office that clients listed as their own on resumes. However, it was my recorded voice that greeted potential employers with a cheery, "We're not home, please leave a message." Everyone's address was a shared Plaza P.O. Box.

But the agency only could provide about 10 free monthly bus passes to a limited "intensive" caseload of nearly 20 individuals -- those who either had landed a job or were deemed "most likely to succeed" in finding work. Sometimes, I paid for bus passes out of my own lean (3/4-time) salary so clients could continue working. Center volunteers and staff culled newspapers and employment banks and contacted potential employers for job leads to pass on to the hundreds that came through our doors and through our downtown Homeless Center.

Our food banks were consistently low, especially at month's end, when the food stamps had run out; likewise, the coffers for utility assistance for those "lucky" enough to have homes. Many ate only one meal a day at a local soup kitchen. One woman, who hadn't eaten for three days but filled her belly by drinking green tea, vomited green froth.

Yes, I remember.

And President Ronald Reagan, I don't ever intend to forget.

Rhiannon Ross can be contacted at or


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