The Trouble with Stereotypes

One of the many hurdles to ending hunger is the stereotyping of hungry people. What generally comes to mind are people in crumbling, crime-ridden neighborhoods who are on all manner of government assistance, are lazy and taking advantage of the system. People begging with cardboard signs at intersections also come to mind.

There are certainly hungry people in those scenarios. There are some people who try to take advantage of the system — but their numbers are far, far lower than the number of families who honestly need support, and are working to better their lives. If you’ve ever known someone who has been in one of these government systems, you know how difficult enrollment can be, how strictly guidelines are adhered to, and how modest is the assistance actually given. Few want to be in those programs unless they have to be.

The truth is that while some of the food insecure do reflect those stereotypes, most folks who need assistance look just like you and me. Let me introduce you to Brad.

A few years ago, I was at Downey Avenue Christian Church on Indy’s near east side. Their food pantry was open that day, and I was interviewing clients as part of a Gleaners study when a man approached the table where I was working.

Brad looked “normal” (if there is such a thing!). He had a college degree, and had had a good job as a manager and his own place in Carmel. He’d been doing well — until he lost his job. That’s when things went downhill. He’d had no income at all the prior month and found himself living in the inner city sharing a bathroom with three other men. He had frequently been hungry, sometimes not eating for an entire day.

Brad had lost all sense of self-worth. The man he saw in the mirror was not the manager who lived in Carmel, a middle-class citizen with a mortgage and late model car. His financial situation had thrown him in with the poor and hungry people for whom, in his former life, he’d only felt disdain. He believed they were poor because they were lazy or unmotivated. Now the face in the mirror told him a different story.

From this and dozens of other interviews, I learned an important lesson. The face of hunger is not one face — it’s a collage of faces of all ages, all races, rural and urban, people with advanced degrees and people who didn’t finish high school.

Don’t fall for stereotypes, especially stereotypes in which the hungry themselves are blamed for their predicament. People’s circumstances can change in a heartbeat through no fault of their own. When that happens, we need to make sure we’re there to help support them, feed them, until they get back on their feet.

I urge you to be a voice for those who are struggling, those whose struggles will only worsen if Congress cuts $150 billion in funding for SNAP. Contact your Congressional representative and let them know that their constituents include the hungry, and they deserve to be fed.

dave

All About SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal program that provides food assistance to low and no-income people and families living in the U.S. It is among the programs Congress has designated as mandatory spending (or entitlement). What this means is that if your situation deteriorates enough that you qualify, you can receive benefits regardless of others also needing support. When the recession hit in 2008/2009 SNAP immediately ramped up to help the greatly increased number of people in need. It took years for private charities to similarly ramp up. SNAP is doing the same right now for people impoverished by hurricanes and floods.

“Why are SNAP expenditures so high?” is a frequently asked question. Sadly, there is a simple answer for this: it’s because lots of people are truly poor. It’s not because people want to be on SNAP.  Applying is difficult. Work requirements limit benefits for able-bodied adults who do not have dependents. The value of the minimum wage has declined and the cost of living has not.

The answer should not be millions more people going hungry. The answer should be adjusting our economy so that anyone willing to work a full-time job is able to feed their own family. As people get good jobs, they will gladly see their SNAP benefits ended (once a certain income level is reached, SNAP benefits automatically end).

SNAP benefits are not generous. They are designed to run out after three weeks of a month, and they do. To feed their families, desperately poor people have to patch together SNAP, school meals, food pantries, etc. in the midst of extreme life challenges. Benefits are adjusted for family size, so seniors living alone often conclude that the application process is not worth the minimal benefit.

Periodically, there are suggestions that SNAP can be made more efficient by handing the program off to the states. The truth, however, is that the program is already very efficient:  >90% of funds go directly to beneficiaries. Many private charities cannot make that claim. Fraud rates are also already very low, despite the claims of people who want to sack the program. In fact, overhead could be even lower if SNAP administrators at the state level didn’t have to spend so much time assuring critics that no one wrongly receives benefits!

To those who suggest that charities simply replace SNAP — unfortunately, this idea is completely impractical. The reality is that 80-90% of food assistance provided to those in need from all sources is Federal. It comes through SNAP, school meals, WIC, commodities distributed through food banks, and senior nutrition programs. Churches and private charities in total can cover just 10-20% of the need.

Poverty is just too widespread for charities and churches to meet the need for food. With public and private, faith-based and secular, for-profit and not-for-profit all together we could meet the need. But only with everyone contributing.

The cuts that Congress is proposing will be devastating to those in need. Please contact your legislative representative and urge them to keep SNAP at its currently funded level.

dave

All About Bread

Subtitle: Change the Systems!

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. in The Strength to Love

The natural first response to people going hungry is to offer them food. However, as we noted yesterday, hunger is a massive issue. We also need to keep in mind the bigger picture – changing the systems is also needed.

If you had a payday lender nearby gouging very poor people with 200% interest rates, you might angrily picket the store to try to get them to close or change their practices, but there’s probably ten more such stores nearby. Or you could work to change the systems by getting a law passed that caps interests rates for all such outfits.

Bread for the World works to change the systems, to change Federal government policy to make the system more just for hungry and poor people, at home and abroad. Everyone has a part to play, and hunger cannot be ended without our government playing its part.

How does Bread for the World do this work? We can capture it in 5 ‘P’s.

Prayer. Bread organizes a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to help end hunger and poverty. We need God in this work. We bring together Christians from all traditions, as well as many others, to speak up for the hungry. We see God in each of our elected officials of both parties, and treat them with respect. We have no ‘red meat’ partisan issues; we do not work with or for parties and politics.

Policy. Bread’s staff are widely respected on Capitol Hill for their knowledge and ability. The staff provide advocates like me in all 50 states with timely information we need to make an impact. Bread’s role is so vital and done so well that it was recognized with the World Food Prize in 2010, the only time the award has gone to an advocacy organization. We are bipartisan in our policy approaches, staff and board.

Persuasion. Our advocates know the issues and engage their friends and churches. This increases their impact. As their voices are joined with those of activists across the country, change can happen.

Persistence. Systems change is not easy, and it can take a long time. When it comes, though, it can be deep, wide, just and sustainable. The Founding Fathers framed our democracy for compromise — this takes time, so we persist.

Power. From the first four ‘P’s’ comes our fifth ‘P’ — power. With leadership from Bread, the Global Food Security Act was passed in 2016 with both Senators Coats and Donnelly as co-sponsors, as were six of the nine Hoosier Representatives in the House. Eight of the nine Representatives voted in favor of it. The prior year we saw major victories with tax credits for the working poor, poverty-focused development assistance, international food aid reform, and Africa trade policy.

It’s a story for another blog post, but a couple years ago I wrote an email to my Senator’s staffer, and the upshot was $35 million for African farmers. You can’t get that impact with a bake sale.

Contact your legislative representative today. Together we can move mountains.

Dave

Why Now?

Why Now?

The problem of hunger in the US is sadly widespread. One of eight Americans struggle to have enough food.

The problem is even worse here in Indiana where 1 in 6 people are food insecure. That’s one million Hoosiers. It impacts Hoosiers of all races and ages. Food shortage is accompanied by poor nutrition as well; more than half of the hungry report that they rarely or never eat nutritious meals.

It is also important to realize that hunger is not just an urban problem. Residents of suburbs and rural communities are also at risk. The proposed SNAP cuts would hit many rural Indiana counties particularly hard, counties where resources are few. Some counties have only a food pantry or two, which means less food, and accessibility is difficult or impossible if you don’t live in a pantry’s vicinity.

The timing for proposing these cuts to SNAP seems very odd. People whose lives have just been destroyed by hurricanes in Texas and Florida need food as well as shelter, and SNAP does the heavy lifting, keeping people fed after natural disasters.

It also is odd to propose cutting SNAP when our economy is making slow but steady progress following the recession. As people’s incomes increase they are no longer eligible for SNAP. The program is self-limiting; in other words, if our economy remains on its post-recession path, demand for SNAP funding decreases.

Another “why now” reason for my fast is that, this time around, this resolution has a far greater chance of passing than previously. The House has passed budget resolutions like this multiple times in the recent past, but in that political climate they could do so just to make a political statement. They knew the President and the Senate would not go along. To do so now is a very different matter.

In this country, with all of its wealth and all of its agricultural prowess, there is simply no good reason for tens of millions of people to continue to go hungry. No other developed nation allows this to happen. America is better than this.

There comes a time when you have to stand up for what you believe. At the end of the day it is Congress that makes most of the decisions, so we need to influence their decision making. After all, whose voice are they?

I enjoyed a dinner with a group of millennials. There were small children running around everywhere. Everyone but me was well under the age of 40. The leader commented on why they had gathered: “We’ve been busy with our families and our careers, but we can no longer just assume that our values will be upheld.”

Now is the time for all of us to act. It’s time to do more to end hunger, not less. Liking a post is not enough; we need to contact our elected officials. We must ask them to be sure that our government does its part.

dave

Why a Fast?

Today I began a 50 meal fast. This action comes after much prayer and reflection. My purpose in doing this fast is to make a personal statement about the inhumanity of an action in Congress, the Budget Resolution recently passed by the House of Representatives.

This budget proposal is strikingly immoral. The Resolution included $150 billion in cuts to SNAP (formerly food stamps) over 10 years. What does this number really mean? Calculating the impact on Hoosiers – it translates to 50 million meals taken away from children, veterans and seniors each year for ten years.

I have devoted the last decade of my life to improving the systems to try to assure that no one goes hungry. I know the food assistance systems more than well enough to know for sure that most of the 50 million meals cannot be covered some other way. Real people, millions of times a year, will go hungry.

I believe this proposal is also unwise. Hungry people increase our health care costs and crime, and hunger hurts our economic competitiveness.

Jesus fed people who were hungry, all of them. His disciples were instructed not to send the people away hungry. Wishing to do what I can I will fast. Every meal I’ll miss for the next 16 days represents roughly a million meals in jeopardy for Hoosier children, seniors and veterans if the drastic cuts being debated in Congress become reality.

I have a plan to fast safely.  My decision to miss meals is my own choice, while our most vulnerable neighbors could go hungry through no choice of their own. People of conscience should speak out. I am sharing the experience through my personal and organizational networks, and with those who represent me in Congress, in the hope of bringing attention to the cruelty of these cuts.

I welcome your prayers. More importantly I invite you to join me – pray for our nation, share this concern with others, and let your voice be heard in Washington by contacting your Congressional representatives.

I also invite you to read about the work being done by Bread for the World on behalf of the hungry. Standing united and speaking up is how we can end hunger, together.

For the next 15 days, I’ll be sharing more information about ending hunger as well as sharing my 16-day journey at millionmealfast.com. 

Thank you.

Dave Miner