Mark Cuban Versus John Legend: They’re Both Right

11.18.2020

Mark Cuban Versus John Legend: They’re Both Right

Joel Berg

Dallas billionaire Mark Cuban caused quite a stir (his favorite activity) by tweeting that, instead of giving funds to their preferred candidates in the Georgia U.S. Senate run-off, Americans should “donate that money to your local foodbank.”

Singer John Legend responded: “I get that politics is annoying and contentious, but the bottom line is that the Senate flipping would be far more impactful than a food bank donation.”

Cuban parried back: “There is a point of diminishing returns on political ad spend, there are no diminished returns when it comes to feeding the hungry.”

At a time when nearly four in ten U.S. kids are missing meals, they both have a point.

Legend is 100% correct that government’s role in fighting hunger dwarfs the impact of charity. The dollar amount of food provided by federal nutrition safety net programs is 15 times greater than that distributed by food banks. The current U.S. Senate majority has, for six months, held up a vitally-needed boost in federal food aid.

But Cuban is right that massive campaign spending is often wasted. The majority of campaign cash is spent on TV ads that most voters don’t see, direct mail that most voters don’t read, and paid phone calls that most voters don’t answer, and much of the rest goes into the pockets of campaign consultants. Meanwhile, democracy is subverted when elected officials and candidates spend far more time raising money than meeting with constituents.

Cuban also tweeted, “Let’s put Americans in need above politics,” implying that hunger is non-political and that both sides are equally to blame for it. That’s silly. Politics is the main reason that 54 million Americans are now food insecure. The facts prove that hunger has morphed from being a non-partisan issue in the 1970s to a highly partisan issue today, with a stark difference between the two parties.

It’s also problematic, albeit common, to assume that the only way to aid nonprofits that fight hunger is to support direct food distributions. Such efforts are vital in filling in gaps, but the food banks that also help low-income people apply for federal nutrition benefits and engage in policy advocacy (such as most food banks in Texas) are even more effective. National nonprofit groups like the one I run, Hunger Free America, or the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), which focus laser-like on benefits access and large-scale policy advances, also have a huge impact in reducing hunger.

Yet as much nonprofit groups depend  upon – and greatly appreciate – private donations, we need to examine why key societal functions such as feeding and housing people are so dependent on the giving whims of the wealthy.

In 1959, when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, the very wealthiest Americans paid up to 91 percent of their income in taxes, but that rate is now only 37 percent, and many of the richest use loopholes to pay even less. We don’t need to go back to the full 91 percent rate, but if the wealthy again paid a vaguely reasonable share of taxes, we’d be more than able to afford an adequate food safety net.

The minimum wage in Texas, $7.25 per hour, leaves countless working families in poverty. It’s no wonder that, even before the pandemic, one in nine working adults in Texas – equaling 1.5 million Texans with jobs – couldn’t afford enough food. Significantly raising the minimum wage would do the most to slash hunger.

I’m glad two celebrities are sparring in public over the best way to use their ample money. Mr. Cuban and Mr. Legend: I’ll wait eagerly by our organization’s mailbox for your generous donations. But if we are serious about ending hunger in America, we all need a much wider debate.

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Joel Berg is CEO of Hunger Free America, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. He is also author of the book “America, We Need to Talk: A Self-Help Book for the Nation” (Seven Stories Press).