Hands Across America's Nonpolitical Status Challenged by Partisan Anti-Hunger Activists

Times Staff Writers

It was supposed to have been nonpartisan, non-denominational and, above all, nonpolitical.

Liberal celebrities like Yoko Ono, Jane Fonda and Harry Belafonte held hands in the same line as President Reagan, New York's Cardinal John O'Connor and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

The one thing Hands Across America participants were asked to leave at home on the afternoon of May 25 was their personal politics.

"A lot of people are trying to make us into a lobby, but personally, I'd rather play some role that is above politics," said Ken Kragen, the man who created Hands Across America.

But both his fiercest critics and closest allies are now saying it is impossible to remain apolitical. Hunger and homelessness in America are questions that must be answered in Congress, at the White House and, ultimately, at the ballot box--not in well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual mega-events like Hands Across America.

It is the one major point, for example, where pop humanitarian Kragen differs with his Irish counterpart, rock singer Bob Geldof, a founder of Live Aid and Sport Aid.

"It's like Ken not to be political," Geldof told The Times. "I know he doesn't like to get involved. But that's what it is: political. One hundred percent."

It is becoming increasingly clear that few in the business of providing for the hungry and homeless ever believed Hands Across America was anything but a political statement. Anti-poverty advocates wasted little time turning Hands into a partisan tool in Washington.

The congressional authors of two major appropriations bills, which would be worth more than $5 billion in relief for America's underclass, have timed the introduction of their legislation to coincide with Hands Across America. Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.) plans to introduce his Homeless Person's Survival Act next week and Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) introduced his Hunger Relief Act of 1986 the same week as Hands Across America.

Panetta is openly soliciting Kragen's USA for Africa Foundation for an endorsement of his bill.

But officials of USA for Africa, which sponsored Hands Across America, are reluctant to endorse any political action for fear that it could jeopardize the tax-exempt status of their foundation. Under federal law, tax-exempt organizations are severely limited in their ability to lobby Congress.

Ironically, the problems that USA for Africa officials want to solve can only be solved by successfully lobbying Congress, say critics.

"In the long run, the hands that are going to have the most impact are the hands that write to members of Congress," said Arthur Simon, executive director of Bread for the World.

Unlike the USA for Africa Foundation, Simon's 50,000- member organization is not tax-exempt and has regularly lobbied for anti-hunger legislation for the last 12 years. Bread for the World's lobbying is nonpartisan, Simon said. Though anti-hunger legislation tends to originate from the political left more often than the right, Bread for the World woos both Republicans and Democrats with its $2.5-million annual budget.

But Hands Across America has carried the issue beyond Capitol Hill and set it squarely on the front porch of the White House.

Elected officials such as Panetta and Leland, as well as other advocates of the homeless and hungry, view Hands Across America as a decisive opportunity for criticizing Reagan Administration policies that they claim have worsened the plight of the poorest in America. Many see the event's 5.6 million participants as potential voters in their camp and an army of lobbyists to improve conditions for the homeless and hungry.

More conservative voices want Hands Across America to stick to Kragen's original apolitical vision.

As a direct result of this tug of war, Kragen's USA for Africa Foundation is facing an identity crisis.

Kragen predicted that a meeting of the USA for Africa board of directors scheduled for Tuesday is going to be a long one: "I think we're going to have to decide whether to remain a charitable foundation or be a lobbying force.

"We're trying to stay bipartisan, and from one standpoint it's even more important to do so now than ever before."

Some of the pressure upon USA for Africa to take a more political stance is coming from churches and synagogues. Priests, ministers and rabbis armed with strongly worded political pamphlets were there in New York's Battery Park on Hands Across America Sunday, but they weren't holding hands.

"Standing in line is not the solution," said a priest, reading from a pamphlet he handed out to hand holders and spectators alike. "Public officials must be held responsible for changes in public policies and funding for programs affecting the ability of poor people to feed themselves and their children."

Pamela Stebbins, a senior associate with the Trinity Church grants program and one of the activists who passed out pamphlets to the Hands Across America crowd, put it more bluntly: "In my opinion, the churches are being taken advantage of by the government."

During the last six years of government cutbacks on domestic spending, Stebbins said, the poor simply moved from government-subsidized shelters to church shelters. Today, churches and synagogues shelter and feed about 85% of New York's 1.7 million homeless and hungry, according to a recent study conducted by the Trinity Church Foundation.

Dianne Wright, program officer of USA For Africa and former deputy director of the Interfaith Hunger Coalition of Los Angeles, said that about 88% of the 350 emergency food programs in Los Angeles County are run by churches and synagogues.

In effect, congressional and Administration inaction is pushing the once nonpartisan church soup kitchens into politics.

"The religious community does not come together and speak with one voice very often," Stebbins said. Under the ecumenical title of the New York City Interfaith Hunger Policy Task Force, that's exactly what happened.

According to the pamphlet, the $100 million Hands Across America was supposed to generate wouldn't even buy food stamps for one-sixth of the people who need them each year in New York City alone.

(The $100 million Hands Across America goal was scaled down to $50 million in March. Although organizers remain optimistic that they can eventually meet the $50-million goal, the project had brought in about $30 million as of Wednesday, according to Kragen. After expenses, USA for Africa now has about $13 million that it can distribute to the homeless and hungry.)

More than two dozen end-hunger activists interviewed by The Times generally applauded the high-media profile Hands Across America temporarily gave the issue.

They were largely critical, however, of the Hands hierarchy's resistance to seeking political solutions--especially when the person who is viewed by many as the chief roadblock to ending hunger was allowed a place in the Hands Across America line.

"There was one American Ken (Kragen) should not have allowed to be in that line," said Bob Geldof. "That was Mr. Reagan. That guy is the one man who can do something immediately to change things and he doesn't. Ken should have said, 'We invite all Americans except one.' "

Lobbyists like Bread for the World's Simon see a schizophrenic reaction from the White House on the hunger issue. The same President who stood in the Hands Across America line does not believe Americans face starvation under current government policy.

"I don't think there is anyone going hungry in America simply by reason of denial or lack of ability to feed them," the President told a group of high school students four days before he joined the Hands Across America line. "It is by people not knowing where or how to get this help."

At a press conference last week, Reagan reaffirmed his belief that Americans don't starve because of lack of food but because they don't know where to get it.

Conservative theorists at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a source of many Reagan Administration policies, question the political motives and assumptions on which Hands Across America were based.

S. Anna Kondratas, a health and urban affairs researcher, echoed the Administration's views in a report she released May 23 arguing that "there is absolutely no credible evidence that hunger in America is either widespread or on the rise.

"The truth is . . . the degree of hunger in America is tiny and much of the hunger which persists is related more to dietary ignorance than lack of . . . assistance."

Rep. Panetta vehemently disagrees.

Accounting for inflation, he said, the federal government now spends $500 million less than in 1981, yet there are four million more people living in poverty today than four years ago. His Hunger Relief Bill of 1986 would increase basic federal food-stamp benefits, school lunch and breakfast programs and several other food-subsidy programs.

"What has to happen is, (we must) start the legislation moving through Congress and then convert the people who participated (in Hands Across America) into lobbyists," he told The Times. "It would be helpful if people who organized (Hands Across America) decided to . . . speak to the problem and lobby for legislation."

With the increased pressure from Panetta's bill and from similar legislation that Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has introduced in the Senate, Kragen has been wavering.

"In order to play a true political role, you have to put a tremendous amount of energy into studying the issues," Kragen said. Personally, he said, he is not presently prepared to make such a time-consuming commitment.

Kragen said that his own business reached the brink of collapse last February because he put too much of his own energy into Hands Across America and not enough into Kragen & Co. His Sunset Boulevard personal management and television production firm handles such clients as Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie.

Richie left Kragen briefly in February because he felt Kragen was devoting more time to Hands Across America than he was his paying clients. As a result, Kragen fired 12 people--nearly half his staff--on Valentine's Day. The remaining employees were asked to take a 10% pay cut.

By March, Richie had returned to Kragen & Co.

Kragen said the February crisis taught him a lesson about balancing his personal and his philanthropic roles, but he continues to be tempted by philanthropic causes.

Two weeks before Hands Across America, Kragen exuberantly spoke of South American hunger as the next cause that USA for Africa might try to tackle. But following the May 25 event, a more sobered Kragen resolved to ease off his own personal commitment to USA for Africa and its hunger projects.

"I've got to get back to making a living," he said.

Panetta, who chairs the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition and the Domestic Hunger Task Force of the House Select Committee on Hunger, worries that Kragen's apolitical ambiguity could dissipate the initial success of Hands Across America.

"If you just have one event and walk away from it, it might help a little bit," Panetta said.

Rep. Leland, whose Homeless Person's Survival Act would appropriate about $4 billion in federal funds to provide low-cost housing and other programs to aid America's 2.5 million homeless, expects Congress to respond more aggressively to his bill as a result of the 4,152-mile national line. But like Panetta, he recognizes that the mega-event alone is meaningless without political follow-up.

"Hands Across America was an unprecedented volunteer effort, but government cannot ignore its responsibility," said Leland, chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger.

Tom Boney, deputy staff director for Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said the apolitical nature of Hands Across America should have precluded it from having a political impact.

"Some stood for private sector involvement." he said. "Others interpreted their participation as a symbolic protest against the Reagan Administration. But you cannot interpret (that) exclusively that way when the President (himself) stood in line."

Boney, however, understands how the advocates for the hungry and homeless would attempt to use the event to their political advantage.

"Again, they are trying to imply after the fact that people who stood in line supported their view when, before the event, there was no publicity saying they would be supporting a point of view," he said.

Besides trying to wean himself and his foundation away from the time-consuming politics involved in ending hunger, Kragen faces the additional problem of USA for Africa's tax-exempt status.

As a tax-exempt foundation, the USA for Africa Foundation is forbidden to spend more than 5% of its income on direct grass-roots lobbying efforts, according to foundation executive director Marty Rogol. Another 15% may be spent on office space and other administrative expenses, but any lobbying expenses beyond 20% of the foundation's annual income jeopardizes its tax-exempt status, he said.

Since its inception, USA for Africa has been a quasi-lobby. When Congress approved $800 million in famine aid to sub-Saharan countries like Ethiopia in the spring of 1985, Kragen and Rogol repeatedly stressed USA for Africa's media influence in bringing about the enabling federal legislation.

"We obviously have access to a lot of media and that's one of the things we can do," Rogol said. "We can say, 'Here are your options. If you agree with the following, you should support this kind of legislation."'

Although his foundation has come close to crossing the line, USA for Africa is still not an anti-hunger lobby, Rogol insists.

"They are a non-lobbying group and they can't lobby," said Bread for the World's Simon. "We are a lobbying group but we're nonpartisan. We're always very careful to work with both parties."

Since 1974, Simon's organization has had both a tax-exempt and a taxable branch. Bread for the World itself is a strong advocate of anti-hunger legislation and publishes an annual report card on the hunger voting records of members of Congress.

The tax-exempt Bread for the World Educational Fund, on the other hand, stages seminars and media campaigns, but steers clear of formally supporting or opposing bills, such as Panetta's or Kennedy's.

Simon questions whether a similar dual identity would work for a high-profile charitable trust like USA for Africa.

"I don't think there's an easy solution, but this dilemma faces CARE as well as churches and USA for Africa and all these private-assistance groups," Simon said. "They want money to fund their own particular work and they have a tendency to stop there. There needs to be more advocacy--going after specific pieces of legislation--and obviously they can't do that in the role they're playing now."

But USA For Africa's opportunity to make a political impact may not last forever. The one clear point that has emerged after America held hands on May 25 is that Hollywood's soft-sell message of compassion is hardening into political confrontation.

Already, congressional committee staffers say Reagan's denial of the hunger problem will force debate on the issue along strict party lines. They predict that a highly charged partisan atmosphere will threaten the chances of both the Panetta and Leland bills and nullify Hands Across America's political benefits.

"(The Reagan Administration is) stonewalling the issue. There doesn't seem to be the openness to try for creative solutions," said one staffer who did not wish to be identified. "If the members get a strong message from home, they might be willing to buck the Administration."

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