Volunteers fill bags with food for part of their backpack school lunch program at the Cleveland Foodbank in Cleveland on Tuesday, November 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

The congressional hunger games began when Senate Democrats voted to cut $4.1 billion from food stamps, or SNAP. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said it was a matter of slicing “waste, fraud and abuse” from the program.

Except that’s not what they were doing.

They were cutting about $90 a month in benefits for 500,000 households—more than a week’s worth of assistance for a typical family, at a time when an individual’s average benefit is about $4.45 per day. (It’s worth noting too that just one cent on every dollar of SNAP spending is lost to fraud.)

House Republicans then tried to up the ante and slash $20 billion from the program—to reduce both the deficit and welfare dependence, they claimed.

Except that’s not what they were doing.

Food stamp spending is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to amount to just 1.7 percent of federal spending over the next ten years—and people with access to food stamps when they are young have better health outcomes and less dependence on welfare assistance over the long-term. In fact, what the Republicans were attempting to do was toss 2 million people off of SNAP and prevent 210,000 low-income children from receiving free school meals. The bill failed because many Republicans wanted even deeper cuts.

Finally, on Thursday, House Republicans took these hunger games to a new level of violence: they passed a farm bill stripped of any food stamp provision.

There were appropriate expressions of outrage that this occurred at a moment when nearly 50 million Americans aren’t sure, at times, where their next meal is coming from. But beyond the outrage is a key question: why is it so easy for both parties to play games with the lives of the one in seven Americans—including nearly one in three children—who are in need of food assistance? And what can be done to change this dynamic?

A friend of mine suggested that a representative group of food stamp recipients storm the House floor.

“So about half of them would be children, and about 10 percent elderly, and a lot in wheelchairs, with oxygen tanks, crutches, etc.,” she said. “It would make the fools in the House look even more trivial and foolish than they already look.”

My friend wasn’t being literal, but she makes an important point—we shouldn’t permit our legislators to continue making these decisions in a vacuum, isolated from the very people whose lives they are toying with.

In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and co-principal investigator at Children’s HealthWatch, said, “There’s just not enough people who are poor who have an opportunity to speak out…to really engage in our democracy. I think that they’re actively shut out.”

At the very least, during the umpteen farm bill hearings, Democrats—and there are still many on the right side of this fight—should noisily work to ensure that we hear from real people about their real experiences. Make those who would malign the poor tell them to their faces that they are lazy for working a low-wage job or two, trying to take care of their kids and needing SNAP’s $1.50 per person, per meal to help them make ends meet. Senators and Congressmen can also try to explain to people how taking their food away—while also opposing a raise in the minimum wage—is somehow going to reduce their poverty and hunger.

And for those who can’t make it to Washington to confront their legislators, we should be pressing for town meetings on hunger in every congressional district, according to Joel Berg, exectuve director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger (NYCCAH). There is hunger everywhere: the proportion of rural households that participate in SNAP is about equal to urban households—14.6 percent and 14.8 percent, respectively, in 2010—and the fastest growing poor population is in the suburbs. It’s time to reduce the shame and stigma, step forward with our neighbors and share our experiences.

The coalition fighting for sound food policy needs to change too.

“There are all of these strands of movements that have been talking past each other,” said Berg. “There’s the small farm people, nutrition people, sustainable agriculture people, and the anti-hunger folks. The only way we can win this is if we’re all in this together.”

Berg and NYCCAH hope to build the kind of diverse coalition in New York City that can serve as a national model. The Food Secure NYC 2018 initiative aims to end hunger in the city by the end of the next mayor’s first term and inject food and hunger issues into the upcoming mayoral campaign. Currently more than 1.4 million New Yorkers—including one in four children—live in households that are struggling with hunger.

Berg said there is plenty of “low-hanging fruit,” such as ensuring that every school provides universal, in-classroom breakfast. New York City ranks last among twenty-six large urban school districts in breakfast participation, with only 35 percent of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches also eating free breakfasts.

A food jobs proposal focuses on the $30 billion that New York City residents spend on food annually, much of which is grown, processed and manufactured outside of the city and region. The plan calls for expanding city and rooftop gardens; urban farms; food co-ops; community-supported agriculture projects; farmers’ markets; community kitchens and projects that hire unemployed youth to grow, market, sell and deliver nutritious foods. It would also bolster year-round neighborhood plants that process, freeze and can foods.

The initiative would create “food and nutrition zones” modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone. Berg said the idea is “to saturate targeted neighborhoods with every possible food access, anti-hunger, nutrition, and obesity-reduction strategy.”

“We’ll be able to measure results and create a national model for what works,” he said.

People of faith, nutritionists and low-income people are already involved in this effort, and Berg hopes to bring in farmers, unions and other NYC-based antipoverty groups over the next few months.

It’s good to see these advocates trying to change the politics of hunger. If their strategy works, maybe it will indeed end up serving as a national model.

But in the meantime, Congress continues to pummel low-income people with increasing ferocity. I would like to know what you think can be done to confront and change this kind of cruelty and shortsightedness.

Frankly, I’m somewhat at a loss.

Get Involved

Sequestration Endangers Women—2013

Book from Nation contributor Sasha Abramsky

The American Way of Poverty­ received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and was its “pick of the week.” PW describes the book as a “searing exposé” and “a challenging indictment of an economy in which poverty and inequality at the bottom seem like the foundation for prosperity at the top.” The book will be released on September 10.


Saving Financial Aid (Today, 9:30 am–11 am, New America Foundation, 1899 L St. NW, Washington, DC.) A new report, “Building Expectations, Delivering Results,” from the Assets and Education Initiative (AEDI) at the University of Kansas suggests that investing in policies that build children’s savings could revolutionize the way that financial assistance is conceived and delivered and improve educational outcomes along the way. A distinguished panel of experts explores how our financial aid system could be remade to promote savings and opportunity. You can watch online here.

Unfinished March Symposium (Monday, July 22, 4:30 pm‐7 pm, AFL-CIO, 815 16th Street, NW, Samuel Gompers Room, Washington, DC.) August 28 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and the goals of the march remain largely unfinished. The Economic Policy Institute convenes this symposium to examine America’s civil rights successes, as well as the significant amount of civil rights work that remains to be done.

Start Planning

Beyond Housing: A National Conversation on Child Homelessness and Poverty (Wednesday, January 15, 2014, 3 pm–Friday, January 17, 2:45 pm, Crowne Plaza Times Square, New York, NY). The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH) is working to reduce the impact of poverty and homelessness on children and families. ICPH invites service providers, advocates, practitioners, policymakers, homeless and formerly homeless individuals, researchers and members of the media to its 2014 national conference to begin a dynamic discussion of ideas, programs, solutions, policies and strategies that will improve the lives of poor families across the nation. Author, Tulane University professor, Nation columnist and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry will deliver a keynote speech. Register here.

Clips and other resources (compiled with Samantha Lachman)

How Can a ‘Pro-Life’ Legislator Fight to Gut SNAP?” Sheila Bapat

The Farm Bill’s Auspicious Death,” Joel Berg

Served Up: The Child Care Challenges of Restaurant Workers,” Liz Ben-Ishai, Christine Johnson-Staub, Jodie Levin-Epstein and Hannah Matthews

To reduce child hunger, Indy needs better-paying jobs,” Author Campbell

Sequestration impact: July 7-12,” Coalition on Human Needs

’I never thought it would be like this when I got let go’: sequester cuts start hitting jobless,” Jeff Cox

Wal-Mart’s threatening to pull out of D.C. if it has to pay a higher minimum wage. So what?” Lydia DePillis

Broken Promises,” Byron Dorgan

Rate of Poor Asian Pacific Islanders Soars by 38%” Equal Voice News

As Detroit teeters on bankruptcy, creditors are left holding the bag,” Michael A. Fletcher

Pa. Welfare Dept. to change name to Human Services, but slowly,” Kate Giammarise

Breadwinner Moms on the Rise—But Are They Really Winning?” Tamara Winfrey Harris

The Safety Net: An Investment in Kids,” Hilary W. Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

Low-wage food workers stage one-day strike at Smithsonian museums,” Kate Irby

Short-Term Help, Lasting Payoff,” Lauren Ingeno

What Separates Welfare from Work,” Tammy Kim

Medi-Cal dental coverage to be partially restored, but not until May,” Sandy Kleffman

State By State Map—Pregnancy Discrimination Laws, Breastfeeding and Leave Rights,” Legal Momentum

What’s Wrong With Milwaukee in Seven Charts,” John Light

California Prisons Illegally Sterilizing Female Inmates as Recently as 2010,” Amanda Marcotte

The American economy is eroding the American job,” Harold Meyerson

Kristi Jacobson and Mariana Chilton on How Hunger Hurts Everyone,” Moyers and Company [VIDEO]

Modernizing Asset Limits,” New America Foundation [WEBSITE]

Welfare Reform’s No Model for SNAP,” LaDonna Pavetti

LA Community Wins New Rail Stop to Catalyze Local Economy,” PolicyLink

How inequality was created,” Theresa Riley

Latest Piece on Disability Insurance Doesn’t Tell the Full Story,” Kathy Ruffing

The Rural Monitor: Rural Hunger,” Rural Assistance Center

In rural Tennessee, a new way to help hungry children: A bus turned bread truck,” Eli Saslow

Working-Family Tax Credits Make a Big Difference for Military Families,” Arloc Sherman

Lagging minimum wage is one reason why most Americans’ wages have fallen behind productivity,” Heidi Shierholz

An Oregon Trail to End Student Debt,” Katrina vanden Heuvel

My climb out of poverty wouldn’t be possible today,” Bernadine Watson

North Carolina Slashes Aid to Job Seekers,” Rachel West

Studies/Briefs (summaries co-written by Samantha Lachman)

Has Education Paid Off for Black Workers?” Janelle Jones and John Schmitt, Center for Economic and Policy Research. “A good job is hard to find,” finds the CEPR in this new study examining the deterioration in job quality for black workers. Factors such as discrimination and an overall decline in bargaining power for workers have disproportionately affected black workers, as the share of black workers in a “good job”—one that pays at least $19 an hour with employer-provided health insurance and an employer-sponsored retirement plan—has declined. However, not all of the news from the study is negative. In 2011, one in four black workers was a college graduate, compared to one in ten in 1979. The share of black workers without a high school degree was over 31 percent in 1979 and is now just over 5 percent. The black workforce is also older and more experienced, with a median age of 39. This paper looks at these trends and policies that would have a large, positive impact on the quality of jobs for black workers.

What Families Need to Get By,” Elise Gould et al., Economic Policy Institute. The EPI’s updated Family Budget Calculator offers a broader and more comprehensive measure of economic security than the official poverty thresholds. For example, the calculator accounts for geographical location and estimates community-specific costs for items such as housing, food, childcare, transportation, taxes, healthcare and other necessities. It can also be customized for specific family types. It finds, for instance, that a full-time minimum wage worker in a one-parent, one-child family doesn’t earn enough to meet basic necessities even in the least expensive family budget areas.

Pre-K For Every Child: A Matter of Fairness,” by Kevin Lindsey, First Focus. This report consolidates research to demonstrate how cuts to pre-K funding negatively impact quality of care, to the point that quality improvement is slowing or even reversing in a number of states. “The tradeoff between quality and access is unnecessary,” the report states, and it demonstrates that states which invest in providing broad access see major gains in school readiness and achievement. The report also addresses pre-K in the private sector, arguing that affording private pre-K is challenging even for middle-class families. It finds that families who can’t afford private pre-K or can’t access public pre-K are shut out of the system, and concludes that we need a more equitable and just system that every family can access.

The Inequality of Declining Wages During the Recovery,” National Employment Law Project (NELP). NELP found that from 2009‐12 across all occupations, hourly wages declined by 2.8 percent—but lower-wage occupations saw significantly bigger declines. Real median wages fell by 5 percent or more for restaurant cooks, food preparation workers, home and personal care aids and maids and housekeepers. The decline in wages is striking given that productivity increased by 4.5 percent over the same time period. NELP’s analysis drew on Occupational and Employment Statistics for 785 occupations.

The Third Shift: Child Care Needs and Access for Working Mothers in Restaurants,” Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Center for Law and Social Policy and other national organizations. This report focuses on mothers who work in restaurants and how they access childcare, asking what strategies could be implemented to help them address their childcare challenges. Using data sets, surveys and focus groups, the authors found that mothers struggle with affordability, accessibility and career mobility, compounded by a lack of benefits (like paid sick days). Among the report’s recommendations: raising the minimum wage (which is $2.13 an hour for tipped workers), expanding access to childcare assistance, establishing a minimum standard for earned sick days and supporting collective organizing for workers.

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent. (US Census Bureau 2012)

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 23 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 34 percent of Latino children.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, one in fifteen Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

African-American poverty rate: 27.6 percent.

White poverty rate: 9.8 percent.

Ratio of black unemployment to white unemployment, 1963-2012: 2 to 2.5 times higher every year.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than one in three Americans.

People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: Roughly half.

Gender gap, 2011: Women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Gender gap, 2010: Women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Hourly wage needed to lift a family of four above poverty line, 2011: $11.06.

Federal minimum wage: $7.25 ($2.13 for tipped workers)

Federal minimum wage if indexed to inflation since 1968: $10.59.

Federal minimum wage if it kept pace with productivity gains: $18.72.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996 (pre–welfare reform): sixty-eight for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: twenty-seven for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 1964–1973: poverty rate fell by 43 percent.  

Number of homeless children in US public schools: 1,065,794.

Federal expenditures on home ownership mortgage deductions, 2012: $131 billion.

Federal funding for low-income housing assistance programs, 2012: less than $50 billion.

Average SNAP benefit, individual: $4.45 per day.

Quotes of the week

“Our results suggest rather than the Food Stamp program creating an inter-generational ‘welfare trap,’ the reverse is more likely true. Providing benefits to children at important stages of their development allows them to grow in ways that may help enable them to escape poverty when they reach adulthood.”
   —Hilary Hoynes, University of California-Davis,
    and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, Northwestern University, via Spotlight on Poverty

“After repeatedly voting to deny health insurance to kids, the Republicans overwhelmingly turned their backs on hungry kids and voted to increase unlimited insurance subsidies for the most profitable farmers. The ‘farm only’ farm bill passed today by House Republicans—over the objections of everyone from the American Farm Bureau to the Heritage Foundation—is, simply put, the most fiscally irresponsible piece of farm legislation in history.”
   — Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs, Environmental Working Group

“Let us continue to refuse to be silent until all the George Zimmermans of this world are deterred and held accountable for vigilante justice against Black males. Let us refuse to be silent until the killing of Black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of White mothers’ sons. Only then will we have a post-racial America.”
   —Marian Wright Edelman, from “Justice Denied

Samantha Lachman co-wrote the “Clips and other resources” and “Studies/Briefs” sections in this blog.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again at Moyers & Company and AlterNet. You can e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.

Bill Moyers’s new documentary follows two American families struggling to make ends meet for over twenty years. It’s not a pretty picture—but it’s a necessary film.