I recently attended a reception and was introduced to a civic leader in the community. When she learned that I was the executive director of the Food Bank, she looked me in the eye and said she doesn’t like to support people who use food stamps because they buy things she views as unhealthy. When asked for examples, she mentioned soft drinks, snack food, beer and cigarettes. When I told her that was not quite true - that people couldn’t actually purchase cigarettes, beer, lottery tickets, or even toiletries with food stamps, I detected a chill in the air. She then told me she didn’t think people who could work should get any help at all. When I told her that most people who receive food stamps do in fact work, but make very low wages, and that access to food stamps is strictly income based, she didn’t seem to believe me. When I suggested some books and websites to learn more about the facts, she quietly walked away. She had a strong narrative about fraud and abuse, and she obviously didn’t want to change it. Facts didn’t seem to matter for her.
Recently, a national TV network featured a half hour program on SNAP (food stamp) fraud. It featured able-bodied people who refuse to work because they rely on food stamps, which is hard to understand when the average benefit per meal will be less than $1.40 in 2014. What wasn’t included in the story was the fact that food stamp fraud is currently at its lowest level in history – less than 1 cent of every dollar. Or the fact that among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP — and more than 80 % work in the year prior to, or the year after, receiving SNAP. It clearly didn’t matter that important facts were left out. Assumptions prevailed. So where did this alternate narrative come from? And if it wasn’t factually based, then what was the motivation for believing and spreading an untruth?
We spend a lot of time at the Food Bank gathering facts so we can share them, not only upon request, but more intentionally. We share with our staff and board, the media, social media followers, website visitors - anyone who wants to learn more. We do the research to make sure we’re getting the numbers right, and use trusted sources as our reference points. Why? Because we’re in this work to stand up for those struggling for food. Because we believe facts are essential to accurately convey how desperate things are for people in need.
We’ll continue to put the facts on the table, but when they seem to count less and less, I have to wonder where that leaves us as a country - especially at a time when our leaders are clearly struggling with how to set priorities. If we don’t have the facts, how do we decide where to invest our time and treasure? And most importantly, how do we trust each other again?
What if we had the end in mind when we begin planning for the future? What if we viewed providing food security as an investment in better education and public health outcomes? Would that change the way we thought about nutrition programs? Are there not common things that both conservative and liberals are willing to work for?
If we believe that high unemployment – even in the worst recession in our lifetime – is a reflection of laziness and lack of discipline of the unemployed, then let’s test that assumption.
If we actually believe that greater wealth for our country is possible while we continue living in the present reality of low and stagnant wages for so many of our workers (while decreasing funds for education), then let’s be sure that that is true.
If Congress truly believes it’s acceptable to cut nutrition services for the poor and unemployed by $4 billion a year, then let’s talk about what assumptions these cuts are based on and what action they hope this policy will motivate.
We know through experience and empirical research, that SNAP benefits not only reduced food insecurity and poverty this year; they also reduce poverty in the next generation. Recent research that tracked children into adulthood found that families’ access to food stamps improved their infants’ health and birth weight. Children who benefited from the program later posted better health and higher educational attainment. The outcome for women was greater earnings and less reliance on welfare as adults. Why would we cut a program with such positive benefits?
Does Congress have expectations that the private sector will take up the slack? Food banks and the agencies we serve play a critical role, and we’ve continued to distribute record-breaking amounts of food and groceries over the past four years. But the sobering truth is as hard as we work, mandatory cuts to food stamps that took effect on November 1 – and the $4 billion annual cuts currently proposed by Congress – far exceed the total annual meal distribution by Feeding America food banks across the country. What is the likelihood that the private sector would be able to fill in the gaps caused by such severe cuts to nutrition programs? I can tell you from 35 years of food banking experience that the private sector cannot fill the gaps. I would strongly encourage our leaders to thoroughly examine any assumptions that might be guiding such a critical decision.
Let’s move from throwing our personal sets of “facts” at each other like rocks and determine what works. Let’s test our suppositions, learn from our experience, and change as we go. Otherwise we will continue down the path of the poor getting poorer, our businesses becoming less competitive, citizens less healthy and our young people less prepared.
Today our greatest poverty may be our lack of constructive ideas and the courage to try them. It may have more to do with our fear that our future is being taken from us by others, whoever in our minds “they” may be, and our ability to act on the wisdom gained from past experience. It may be that we only find our richness by giving up our prejudices and fears and having a more generous spirit toward others.
May those among us with the courage to act, take action. Time does not wait on those who are fearful or unsure and success does not come to those who fail to act.
May those with a strong moral compass stand-up and speak-up for what is right. If we can’t agree on the facts, may we dig deep into our collective soul to take the higher path based on common values and higher aspirations.
May those with a vision and commitment to make the world a better place for everyone, no matter their station in life, gain the support to make that vision a reality.
It’s time to create a new narrative for our collective future. It requires a generous heart full of grace and brutal honesty about what we know in our hearts is true.
This letter from Bill appeared in our Holiday Foodsharing issue. To learn more about how to get an issue of Foodsharing delivered to your door, please visit our Newsletters page.