Nia Timmons was stressed.
A mother of three, she works full-time as an assistant teacher at a pre-K program in Camden, New Jersey where she earns $12 per hour. By the second week of November, she still hadn’t received her family’s food stamp (SNAP) benefits and she didn’t know why. She thought it might be due to the SNAP cut on November 1 that hit 48 million people, including 22 million children, but she couldn’t get any answers from the Camden Board of Social Services.
“I’ve not heard from anyone there, and I can’t reach anyone either,” said Timmons.
She told me her story in a coffee shop in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building last week. She had traveled to Capitol Hill along with four of her “Witnesses to Hunger sisters” from Camden, Philadelphia and Boston to speak with Members of Congress about the impact their policy decisions are having on people who live in poverty. Witnesses to Hunger is a project of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at the Drexel University School of Public Health. Participants are mothers and caregivers of young children who use photography and testimonials to document their experiences and advocate for change at the local, state, and federal levels. There are more than eighty Witnesses in various cities on the East Coast.
Timmons and Anisa Davis—also from Camden—shared their experiences with staffers for their representatives, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Democratic Congressman Robert Andrews. The other Witnesses met with legislative aides for their respective Senators and Representatives too. They also stopped by the offices of Republicans on the Farm Bill conference committee, including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas and Florida Congressman Steve Southerland. All of the Witnesses met directly with Democratic Congressmen Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, and with Kellie Adesina, legislative director for Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge.
I was invited to sit in on the meeting with Adesina.
Quanda Burrell, a mother of two from Boston, told her story of being just one semester shy of her teacher’s assistant degree when she was informed that her Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance would run out in two weeks. Her caseworker said she needed to drop out of school and enter a “career readiness program” in order to continue to receive assistance. The Witnesses say these programs often lead to no jobs, or dead-end jobs, and are frequently run by for-profit companies.
Burrell felt she was forced to choose between feeding her family in the immediate term or staying in school so she could attain a stable income in the very near future. She dropped out. But the extension of TANF assistance turned out to be just for two months, and so her only current income is a small stipend she receives for work for Thrive in Five, which promotes early childhood education in Boston. She can’t afford to re-enroll in school and now her rent is due.