Witnesses to Hunger (and Poverty) on the Hill

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The Nation

Witnesses to Hunger (and Poverty) on the Hill

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.

“It affects you mentally, emotionally, physically—it drains you,” said Burrell. “You have to hide it from your children.  You gotta pretend like you’re not struggling with this, but you really are.  You don’t want your kids to feel that stress.  But it does trickle down.”

“You have to hide it from your children.  You gotta pretend like you’re not struggling with this, but you really are.  You don’t want your kids to feel that stress.  But it does trickle down.”

Philadelphia Witness Emily Edwards works part-time as a home healthcare aide earning $9 per hour.  Like many Witnesses, she checks in frequently with her neighbors about how they are getting along.  She said that in West Philadelphia she is constantly asked two questions: “Why were there SNAP cuts on November 1?  And why didn’t anyone tell us?” 

“Instead of a notification, what they get is this answering machine, once they call to check on their benefits, that says ‘due to government cuts you might not receive the same benefits,’” said Edwards, who is 29 and has a five-year-old son.

She suggested that if Members of Congress had “pictures” to go with the numbers and statistics that usually dominate budget discussions, maybe that would help broaden some minds about what programs like SNAP mean to people.

“Give them a face with that number, and make it feel real,” Edwards told Adesina. 

Adesina said that some Members who voted for cuts might be affected by stories of veterans or elderly people on SNAP, but not necessarily by stories about children.

“With children they’re not as moved,” said Adesina.

“Unbelievable,” said Boston Witness Juell Frazier, incredulous.  “Unbelievable!”

A mother of two daughters, ages 4 and 8, Frazier was also forced to drop out of college in order to continue receiving TANF cash assistance.  She had made the Dean’s List at Springfield College and only had two semesters remaining to obtain her Bachelors Degree in Human Services.

After the meeting with Adesina, we returned to the coffee shop and Edwards told me more about how she and her son are faring.  She started her job two weeks ago and knows that she will soon face what is known as “the cliff effect”: when an increase in income triggers a sudden loss of federal assistance, leaving a person economically worse off just as they are trying to get ahead.

Edwards has been through this before, and said that when she shares her first pay stub with her caseworker she will lose her TANF cash assistance and child care assistance, and her food stamps will be cut by “more than half.” 

“If I can’t afford to pay someone to watch my child, then I can’t go to work,” said Edwards.  “I’ll end up losing work, and go back to having to depend on this system that’s not really helping me get ahead in life, it’s helping me stay stagnated, and it starts to become a cycle.”

Edwards shared her experiences with Representatives Fattah and McGovern. 

“They just don’t give us enough time once we get that job to make the transition,” she told them.

Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, pointed to research showing that families who have a modest increase in income, and therefore lose their SNAP benefits, are more likely to experience hunger than are families who remain on SNAP. 

“Just when the families are doing what they’re supposed to do, and want to do—right here we’ve got a teacher and a home health aide—they get cut off at the knees,” said Chilton.  “And that’s over and above the SNAP cuts on November 1 and whatever else might happen with SNAP next.”

The conversation then turned to just that—what might happen with SNAP next. 

You could feel the tension in the room about the prospect of more—and deeper—cuts, and what that would mean for the Witnesses’ families and their communities.  They are already feeling the effects of the November 1 SNAP cut, which reduced the average individual benefit from $1.50 per meal to $1.40 per meal.  It adds up to a reduction of $29 per month in food assistance for a family of three. 

Already, the Witnesses say they are all purchasing fewer fresh fruits and vegetables.  Frazier struggles to buy the higher-priced, gluten-free foods that her 4-year-old daughter needs due to food allergies.  Edwards—who cut sugars out of her son’s diet when he was diagnosed with ADHD—now has to purchase more affordable processed foods and worries about how that will affect her son’s progress.  And Davis—who is out of work and about to have reconstructive foot surgery—is already relying on food banks and friends more than ever before.

Now the House and Senate are negotiating over further proposed SNAP cuts of $40 billion and $4 billion, respectively.  McGovern pointed out that the November 1 cuts will total $5 billion over the next year, and $11 billion through 2016.

“There should be no more cuts.  My line in the sand is that we pass a Farm Bill that does not make hunger worse in this country,” said Representative McGovern.  “We might have to swallow a lot of stuff we don’t like to get a good [SNAP outcome].  But do no harm is a big accomplishment here.”

He told the Witnesses that they could be “the wind at our backs, the hurricane at our backs” during these negotiations, and that over the next few months people need to be speaking out loudly and clearly for “no more cuts in SNAP.”  He also said there should be protests in front of the offices of House Republicans who voted for $40 billion in SNAP cuts even though their constituents currently need food assistance.

When the Witnesses wrapped up their final meeting it was after 6 pm. They had started the day in the early morning hours to travel to Capitol Hill, and they now had to hurry to catch a train home.  They felt a sense of accomplishment.

“I think our presence was powerful today because they got to hear our stories firsthand,” said Davis.  “That’s what [Camden Witnesses] was basically about—ten women with ten cameras—taking pictures about anything that needs to be improved.”

“Anything we want to see a change in,” said Timmons.

The women and men of Witnesses to Hunger will surely continue to advocate for themselves, their families, each other, and their communities.  But if they are to succeed in their efforts, they will just as surely need millions of people to join them—people who are currently silent, or quiet, or taking action only when it’s convenient, like by clicking a mouse.

We will only turn the tide when we value the well being of Nia, Anisa, Emily, Quanda, and Juell as much as we value our own—and we’re willing to fight for it, and make that fight visible.

You can learn more about Witnesses to Hunger by attending their 5-year anniversary here.

Greg Kaufmann

Greg Kaufmann is the poverty correspondent for The Nation and a contributor to BillMoyers.com. He covers poverty in America primarily through his blog, This Week in Poverty. Greg has been a guest on Moyers & Company, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, NPR’s Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, Here & Now, The Thom Hartmann Program, Stand Up! with Pete Dominick and The Matthew Filipowicz Show, as well as various local radio programs. His work has also been featured on Common Dreams, CBSNews.com, NPR.org, WashingtonPost.com, and BusinessInsider.com. He serves as an advisor for Barbara Ehrenreich’s Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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