I recently had the opportunity to listen to a U.S. Congressperson speak about the condition of the economy, the obvious gridlock in Congress, and the need for political parties of both persuasions to find common ground. There were a lot of nodding heads in the audience. He spoke of four challenges that affect our economy: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Welfare.
He said we must honor our commitment to Social Security because it has been paid for by workers, and that Medicare was a commitment we made to our elders and must be supported. But he argued that Medicaid (health care for the poor) – and health care in general – should be examined because health care costs are rising dramatically and cannot be sustained. There was even more nodding of heads.
When he talked about America’s poor, he said they should never go without food or shelter, but made the point that generous government benefits have discouraged some from pursuing work - benefits which keep the safety net propped up must not be so good that the poor decide not to pursue education and/or a job. As he spoke, I could imagine images that were likely coming to mind for many in the audience – images that bring to mind “producers” vs. “takers” – those who value hard work and those who are too lazy to take care of themselves. It was an “us vs. them” statement – the type of statement that divides us instead of bringing us together around aspirations and common visions to sustain our future. And in this division, we find ourselves fearful that someone, somewhere, is going to get something they haven’t worked hard for.
It can be argued that these types of speeches prepare us for budget cuts that must inevitably made. No company or country can borrow 40 cents on the dollar (the amount of money we pay on interest and borrowing to balance the federal government) and continue to be viable.
I hope that before we make decisions that support policy change – especially regarding our country’s safety nets for the poor – that the facts will be closely examined. Who are “they”? Who are those people who supposedly find benefits a better deal than working?
- 85% of SNAP (food stamp) households have gross income at or below 100% of the poverty guideline ($23,350 for a family of four). One can’t get too comfortable there.
- 76% of SNAP households include a child, a senior or a disabled person.
- For a family of 2, often a single mother and child, the average monthly SNAP benefit is $282 a month - less than $1.50 per person/per meal.
- With Georgia’s population at over 9.9 million, the number of families currently receiving welfare assistance in Georgia is less than 4,000, and they receive only an additional $235 a month. It’s important to know they can receive welfare for only a total of four years in their lifetime.
- 41% of all SNAP participants lived in a household with earnings - these are working people trying to make ends meet.
- SNAP has time limits for unemployed workers. Able-bodied adults without dependents may only receive three months of SNAP benefits during any three year period, unless they are working a minimum of 20 hours per week or participating in a job training program.
- Half of all new SNAP participants will leave the program within nine months. SNAP helps families become financially stable and make the transition to self-sufficiency, getting them through the tough times.
These are the people that supposedly are too comfortable with government benefits to work.
The myth of a food stamp/welfare “culture of dependency” is a convenient idea because it makes poverty the result of bad character traits, and if it’s someone else’s fault that they are poor, we are released from feeling responsible and thus released from doing anything about it – it’s their problem, after all.
Would it not be a more productive exercise to look within, at our own poverty? No matter where we are in life or how wealthy and powerful we are, we can feel like we never have enough. In this “state of poverty” we often feel like others are getting too much while our hard work is not paying off. But aren’t we all poor in our ability to create solutions when more than a quarter of the children in our state aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from?
Our image of others often depends on what seat we occupy at the time.
A business person might say “If you’re not producing, you’re a cost to me and society.”
A religious person might say “Everyone has value in God’s eyes; if it brings more dignity to the soul, it’s the right thing to do.”
A politician might say “If it supports the position of my party and voter base, then I’ll support it.”
A media person might say “Let’s find where the harm has been done and feature it. Who’s to blame for the situation?”
A parent might say “If it ensures my children have a healthy and happy life, I’m willing to sacrifice for it.”
A cynic would say “I don’t believe anything will help; I need to get mine before ‘they’ get mine.”
Of course, most of us feel conflicted at one time or another because we don’t wear just one hat. We can be a business person, parent, school board member, and person of faith all at the same time. And that can be a good thing. It often helps us not rush to judgment and consider the facts.
It’s not easy to walk in another person’s shoes, to empathize with another’s plight in life if you’ve never had a similar experience. We’re often against something until it becomes part of our own experience. There have been plenty of examples of that lately.
Just ask people living in the suburbs who have been hit by the economy. In Atlanta’s metro suburbs, the number of poor individuals more than doubled from 2000 to 2010, growing by 122%. Those who have been - or are going through - this life-changing experience almost always come to a broader and more compassionate point of view.
At the Food Bank, we see and work with people from all walks of life. We see those who have succeeded beyond their imaginations and those who have worked hard, but never gotten ahead. We’re also blessed to see those who - through hard work, courage and sheer willpower – have moved ahead for the first time in their lives.
But we never see people who do this work alone. It’s always done in the context of community. And it’s in the context of a community stepping up to help others that we often find our own richness.
-Bill Bolling, Executive Director
This letter appears in the Summer 2013 issue of Foodsharing, our quarterly print newsletter. To download your copy, please visit our Newsletters page.