On January 22, 1992, America’s newspaper of record published a front-page report detailing the long lines still appearing in Moscow and other Russian cities as hungry citizens sought out bread. Several weeks earlier, the USSR had finally collapsed, and breadlines — much as they had during the Cold War — persisted as the de facto symbol of the country’s dysfunction and crippling economic inefficiency.
“In Russia, Long Lines for Plentiful Bread,” blared the New York Times headline, accompanied by a report from journalist Louis Uchitelle that detailed lengthy waits despite the country’s ample supplies of grain and flour. “The bottlenecks that make Muscovites and the residents of other major cities anxious about bread shortages,” wrote Uchitelle, “are not, so far, in the supplies of grain and flour. The problem instead lies in the methods used by the state-owned industry to make and distribute bread.”
Various inefficiencies were documented, among them an incentive structure that perplexingly encouraged retailers to throw out day-old stock and order less bread than they might have been able to sell. Distribution was reportedly poor because there weren’t enough trucks to move goods, and single-cashier service at the point of sale created massive bottlenecks. Thanks to the recent relaxation of price controls, the cost of bread was also soaring.
Only privatization and the introduction of market efficiency, the piece suggested, could possibly ameliorate the situation. What Uchitelle’s report described was a pointless cycle of waste and human indignity, underwritten by a system that remained so inflexible it was squandering surpluses and allowing citizens to go hungry.
The breadline has long been a potent symbol, but it’s also one that, for mainstream media and political institutions, can only manifest beyond America’s borders. When they happen in other countries, food shortages are framed as evidence of precapitalist backwardness. The American system, by contrast, is one of such relentless dynamism and efficiency that, while individual people might experience problems or hardships — hunger, poverty, unemployment — they are precluded from being an indictment of the model itself.
In light of this, it’s worth considering a recent Bloomberg report on the growing queues outside the nation’s food banks that begins by describing a lineup outside one Boston Red Cross facility that stretched the length of two football fields. It includes quotes like this one, from a forty-year-old disabled woman who is a mother forced to ration food for her two adolescent children. “They’re like ‘Mama, I want two pieces, I want three.’ They’re boys. They’re big. They want more.”
Scenes like this are all too common across America today, as food banks report record demand amid skyrocketing grocery prices. The US Census Bureau estimates that nearly twenty-five million people went hungry in April alone, thanks in part to the slashing of pandemic-era food stamp benefits.
Such queues are breadlines in all but name. Tens of millions presently do not have enough to eat in a country with a $25 trillion GDP, all while Congress debates the possibility of attaching new work requirements to an already inadequate and paternalistic food assistance program. Effectively, ordinary Americans are being hit with a three-punch combo of soaring food prices, benefit cuts, and fiscal policies explicitly designed to drive up unemployment.
As one commentator succinctly put it: “1) Too many people have jobs so the [Federal Reserve] raises rates to boost unemployment in the name of taming inflation. 2) People lose their jobs, making them need food stamps. 3) Politicians demand those same people get jobs to be eligible for food stamps, but the jobs are now harder to get.”
Want, cruelty, waste, it’s all here — the whole needless cycle symbolized by long lines outside of food banks in urban areas where there is more than enough to eat. God bless the free market.