Interviewee: Jim Weill
Date: April 1, 2008
Location: Washington, DC
Description: For the past decade Jim Weill has led the Food Research and Action Center as its president. The FRAC’s mission is to end hunger in the United States. The Center works toward this noble goal primarily through its support of public policy, federal nutrition programs, food stamps, school meals and summer food programs.
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is April 1, 2008. I’m here in Washington, D.C., at the Food Research and Action Center with Jim Weill. Thank you so much Jim for taking the time to share your story with me today.
Jim Weill: I’m glad to do it.
JB: Could you start out today by telling me a little about yourself. Where you were born and grew up, along with where you went to school.
JW: Sure. I was born in New York and as well grew up there and went to school there. And I left when I went away to college at Cornell University in upstate New York.
JB: I was in the Peace Corps with a guy from Cornell.
JW: Oh really, which country?
JB: Ukraine from 1998-2000.
JW: You’re a lot younger than I am. My contemporaries were not exactly the first Peace Corps class, but probably the sixth or seventh. And then I went back to New York for law school. But after that I worked in Chicago and here in Washington.
JB: Big city boy.
JW: Yes. But Washington is a small town, so I keep getting smaller and smaller.
JB: Well, I’m a country boy so this is a big city for me. So how did you get involved with the hunger profession?
JW: Well, I had always been interested in social justice issues and after law school I went to work for the federally funded Civil Legal Services Program, what was then OEO funded Civil Legal Services; what was subsequently Legal Services Corporation. And from fairly early on I focused on people’s rights under the major entitlement programs, Social Security, AFDC, Medicaid, and Food Stamps. So it was poverty and public programs that brought me eventually to FRAC.
JB: Well talk about some of the other positions you held.
JW: Well I haven’t changed employers a lot. I worked for 12 years in Chicago for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, where I was a lawyer and then I became director of all welfare litigations and then director of all federal litigations. So I basically oversaw a large number of lawyers who were doing federal litigations on a range of issues, consumer and housing, but mostly around these benefits programs for low-income people. And that was from 1969 to early 1982. From then in 1982 I moved to Washington and went work for the Children’s Defense Fund, where over the years I was Litigation Director, and Legal Director, and then Program Director, General Council; I held a variety of jobs there. And then 10 years ago moved to the Food Research and Action Center as president of FRAC.
JB: So you have been here for ten years then?
JB: Well tell us about FRAC; what’s FRAC’s mission?
JW: FRAC’s mission is to end hunger in the United States. And we work on that primarily through public policy, federal nutrition programs, food stamps, school meals, and summer food programs. But also since obviously hunger is the manifestation of poverty we work on the underlining issues as well, whether it’s minimum wage or welfare benefits or refundable tax credits like the earned income tax credit. So basically our mission is to substantially reduce poverty and stamp out hunger in this country.
JB: What are some of the biggest challenges you face.
JW: Well I’d say the biggest challenge in the past 10 years and beyond has been that, for a set of complicated reasons, wages and benefits for the bottom third of Americans have not increased at all. On average a low paid family with one or two working parents is making the same amount they were ten years ago and very little more than they were making twenty or twenty-five years ago, or that the comparable family was making twenty, twenty-five years ago. All of the benefits of economic growth in this country, in the past ten years particularly, and to a degree beyond that the last twenty, twenty-five years, have gone to the top twenty-five percent, particularly the top ten percent, particularly the top one percent. So families at the bottom, and not just those who are designated poor by the federal government, but a lot of people who are above the poverty line are struggling to get enough healthy food on the table. And as wages stagnate and as health costs and energy costs, and now food costs as well, but particularly over the last ten years, as health and energy costs have risen, families have squeezed their food budget so if you just look at what is happening in the economy without regard to the federal government, the problems of low-income families are getting worse. We have been reasonably successful in improving some of the publics supports like the Food Stamp Program that is spending almost twice as much as it was eight years ago when President Bush took office and School Breakfast and School Lunch have grown, but the numbers of hungry people in this country and food insecure people really have not gone down, because in some senses what we are doing is replacing wages and benefits from the private market with public supports, not because people are working less; they are working more, but because what they are getting out of their jobs is less, so I would say at the moment that is the biggest challenge.
JB: How is FRAC working to remedy that?
JW: Well, we are trying to increase public supports even more. We are trying to, as we did when we supported increasing the minimum wage, improve benefits, improve the private market, improve wages. You know, the government, as much as we think these federal nutrition programs are incredibly important to low-income people and have become more important over the last ten, fifteen years, both because of the wage situation I have described to you, and the cash welfare program has really been eviscerated, so they are wonderful programs, but they can’t do it all. We have to find ways for the society more broadly to support low-income people with higher wages, with better benefits, with supports like the better earned income tax credit or better child tax credit, and we’re not working on all of those issues, but we’re working on some of them.
JB: What is a typical day like for you or is there a typical day?
JW: [Sirens are going on in the background which causes laughter] Well, I am here on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., so a typical day there is not a fire engine, which that sounds like, but there are one or two motorcades that go by on a typical day.
JB: I saw the Vice-President on my way over here.
JW: Exactly! We are honored to have him go by probably every day. Well, I spend a lot of time in meetings, both on substantive issues and on institution issues; a good part of my time is fundraising. Occasionally I go to the Hill to testify or lobby, but we have some full-time lobbyists. I occasionally go out and speak to state-based anti-hunger groups and conferences. I was in Maine last week or the week before speaking to a statewide hunger summit; so there is some of that. I spend most of my time in strategy sessions about legislation. A significant part of what we do is legislative, but the far larger part of what we do is to try to make these nutrition programs work on the ground; trying to get cities to expand School Breakfast; trying to get states to try to improve their Food Stamp policies using options they have under federal law; trying to get Boys and Girls Clubs to take federal dollars to serve kids food after school and in the summer, and so on. So a lot of our work goes around strategizing how to do that; putting out publications. I probably spend more time than I should editing publications.
JB: So educating the people on what is available and how to administer it?
JW: Right. We really do a little bit of everything. We do some lobbying, but we do a lot of research; we do a lot of public education, both through publications and otherwise; we do a lot of technical assistance; we have an annual conference along with America’s Second Harvest, the largest anti-hunger policy conference in the country as you know, so we try and use every device that we can.
JB: Where do you meet the most resistance, or do you?
JW: Well I think we’re resistant in this country to meeting the needs of poor people; while occasionally it’s active, it’s much more often passive. There are not a lot of people, there are certainly some people, but there are not a lot of people who are standing up saying, “No food stamps; no school lunch; lets cut these programs in half.” Now we certainly have had people who said that and have tried to do it in Congress, and we have had periods where there were huge cuts like we had in 1996, but in today’s climate the resistance is not so much active as it is passive. “Well sure it would be nice to reduce poverty and hunger, but we don’t have the money to do that. We have a federal budget deficit. We have to take care of the war first. We have to take care of Social Security first. We have to take care of whatever first.” I mean if you look back at the response to Katrina as an example. Katrina was a, and I just don’t mean the first week’s response, but the general, sort of half-hearted and not wholly competent long-term federal and state response was in some ways a microcosm of how the country deals with meeting the needs of poor people. And again, there were not many people who said, “No, we’re not going to help out the Katrina refugees, the Katrina displacees”, but somehow the job just never got done.
JB: Well, looking back over your career what do you see as some of the biggest achievements and contributions that you have made to fight hunger and poverty?
JW: Well, I think the glass is half full, just like this mug. [JW holds up his coffee mug.] I think that going back twenty, twenty-five years, I think that we’ve actually done some extraordinary things in both the cash and food benefits and the health coverage side for poor people. Some examples that I’ve been involved in is the huge expansion of the earned income tax credit that was legislated in ’86 and then again in ’89 and ’93. So there have been three waves of that. The expansion of the refundability of the children’s tax credit, which we got in 2001; the expansion of Medicaid for children and then the creation of the SCHIP Program for children and the huge increase in the nutrition programs; Food Stamps have doubled, as I’ve said, in the last 7 years, School Lunch, School Breakfast, Afterschool Food have risen at a very fast pace; Summer Food less so. So literally, over that twenty years, hundreds of billions of dollars, maybe a trillion dollars worth of benefits, the groups I have worked with have gotten for low-income people. But to some degree, those benefits have just barely replaced some, but not all, of what people have lost in the private sector again. The easier place, it’s true on the income side, but the easier place to see that is on the health coverage side, where Medicaid, and I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head, but Medicaid and these SCHIPs, State Children’s Health Insurance Program, have probably, because of changes in the law from the ’80s and ’90s, have probably added somewhere between 10 and 15 million children to the public health coverage programs. That same number of children had been pulled out of private health insurance coverage. And it’s not because private employees are dropping dependents because public programs are picking them up. They are dropping them out for other reasons and then the public programs are coming in cleaning up behind them. So we’ve held kids even, which in some ways is a spectacular victory, but the parents who have lost coverage haven’t gotten those expansions. So the glass is half full.
JB: Looking ahead, what do you see for the future?
JW: Well, what I hope I see, what I hope for, is that we’re entering a period where the country is more concerned about hunger and poverty, and low-income people and meeting their needs. I think some of that is coming out in the debate and in the polls. We’re, despite budget problems, which we’ll always have with us one way or another, the country is more willing to tackle them so that in fact over the next ten years, we can bring down by significant numbers, the number of people in this country who are hungry or food insecure, which is the governments language for hunger or struggling with hunger. Bring down the number of people who are poor, bring down the number of people who aren’t insured, and start sort of recreating economic security for the bottom third of the population and strengthening the middle class along the way too. I think that we have really gone through an entire generation where inequality has increased hugely and if we keep doing that I think it’s very dangerous for the country and very harmful to low-income people and very damaging to kids and their education and health.
JB: Well thanks for taking your time to share your story with me today.
JW: Well I’m glad to have done it.