This is the second post in TheNation.com’s #TalkPoverty series—an effort to push a deeper conversation about poverty into the mainstream political debate. The series profiles people working on poverty-related issues, and lays out the questions they want president Obama and Governor Romney to answer. You can read the first post here.
In 1989, when Dr. Mariana Chilton was a junior in college, she lived in Chile for a year working as an interpreter for a US reporter doing a story on “Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared.” It was just after Augusto Pinochet had been voted out of office.
Chilton traveled the Atacama Desert with “wives and daughters and sisters” who were searching for hundreds of loved ones who had been murdered and buried in mass graves.
“They were trying to call attention—carefully—to finding their loved ones,” she told me. “People were starting to learn how to come out and talk—it took their enormous courage to break seventeen years of silence.”
Fifteen years later, as an associate professor at Drexel University School of Public Health and co-principal investigator for Children’s HealthWatch, that indelible experience of breaking the silence would change her work on poverty and nutrition at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities (@HungerFreeCtr).
She was testifying before Congress on the 2007 Farm Bill, offering data on food stamp benefits and how critical they are for children’s health.
“I literally watched the Congresspeople’s eyes glaze over, and I thought, ‘Well this isn’t doing it,’” she said. “I thought of all the women that I’d spoken to who had invited me into their homes to talk about hunger in the previous two years, and that they are the ones who needed to be testifying. The people most directly affected by food policy were being left out of the conversation. How do you get their stories out? How do you break through the silence?”
With an unrestricted $100,000 award from a foundation, she decided to give cameras to women living in poverty so that they could get their messages out through photographs and testimonials.
“It was an attempt to have women speak directly to legislators at the local, state, and federal levels—with something real and tangible from their own experiences,” she said.
Some people thought Chilton was nuts—that the women would end up selling the cameras, and her project would do nothing to help change policy. Chilton disagreed.
“Whether I was getting to know the relatives of the detained and disappeared, listening to their stories while wandering the desert; or sitting with women in their kitchens in Philadelphia and learning about what their experiences with hunger and poverty were like—I always felt an absolute conviction that these stories needed to be heard,” she said.
Chilton had no idea whether the new project—Witnesses to Hunger—would work. But sitting on the sofa with Witness Barbie Izquierdo, and looking at the project’s very first photograph that Izquierdo had taken of a neighbor’s kitchen, Chilton vowed to get “her story, her presence, her photographs” to the White House.
Within a year, the original forty Witnesses were invited to testify at the US Senate, and their photographs were exhibited in the Capitol Rotunda. There are now seventy-six Witnesses, and the project has sites in Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, Providence, and soon, Camden, New Jersey. On August 5, Izquierdo did indeed make it to the White House. She and Chilton were invited there to discuss a new documentary film on hunger in America, A Place at the Table, and how it could energize a national movement to end hunger in this country.
Witnesses to Hunger is now working on a microfinance project that would help women build wealth through financial literacy training, nutrition education, access to banking services and small loans of less than $1,200. Groups of ten to fifteen women would meet weekly to encourage each other to save funds, repay loans and provide one another social support.
“You can get a woman to the White House or Senate, but when she gets back to her home she still needs money. A low-wage job or two just isn’t going to do it,” she said. “When they have opportunities to come together in groups, they help each other. And with small loans for their businesses like braiding, doing nails and hair, catering, house cleaning, providing childcare—they can thrive as entrepreneurs.”
Chilton didn’t want to be profiled nor did she want to provide questions for this post—she asked that it be about the Witnesses and that the questions come directly from them. Only when I told her that I had already planned on speaking with Witnesses for a later post in the series would she cooperate. Nevertheless—perhaps thinking I was just another schmuck from the media who didn’t truly give a damn—she still consulted with Witnesses and her staff to come up with the following questions for President Obama and Governor Romney:
1) One quarter of America’s young children under age 6 are living in homes that are food insecure—meaning their families report that they do not have money to buy enough food for an active and healthy life. Food insecurity negatively affects the cognitive, social and emotional development of young children. This cripples their readiness for school and future school performance. As president, what would you do about our growing hunger crisis in America—especially for young children?
2) Before the recession, 70 percent of households with food-insecure children had at least one parent that was employed full-time. Such a high percentage of “working hungry” American families suggests that US corporations and businesses are not paying adequate wages for American families to keep food on the table. As president, what will you do not only to increase the number of jobs available, but to improve wages in order to help Americans feed themselves, their children, and afford basic necessities?
3) Currently, one in seven Americans (about 45 million people—half of whom are children) are receiving help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. SNAP is the single most important program to prevent hunger and promote healthy eating. In addition, healthcare research shows that SNAP prevents hospitalizations, promotes child development and improves school performance. The recent Farm Bill negotiations and proposed federal budget from the House recommended major cuts to the SNAP program. (There were significant cuts in the Senate version too.) These cuts will increase hunger and its associated costs that Americans will see in our schools, hospitals and pediatric clinics. As president, how will you ensure that elders, the disabled and families with children who receive help from SNAP will be protected during any budget negotiations?
4) Economists demonstrate that 40 percent of the people who are born into poverty will stay in poverty, suggesting very low mobility for poor Americans, and especially women. Low mobility disproportionately affects African-American and Latina women. If one looks at their wealth—the total value of one’s assets minus debts—single African-American and single Latina women have a median wealth of about $100, while the median for single white women is $41,500. (This despite the fact that there were more white women in poverty in 2010 than African-American and Latina women combined; and white, African-American and Latina women participate in the cash assistance (TANF) program in equal proportions.) Around the world, leaders have recognized that investing in women and girls—through group microfinance programs and access to banking services, for example—helps not only to improve their lives but lift an entire nation and boost GDP. As president, what options will you consider to reform the cash assistance (TANF) program to improve mobility for women, and especially women of color?
5) Imani Sullivan, a member of Witnesses to Hunger, said: “Why should I vote? The people in power don’t care about me. They may say they’re looking out for us. But once they’re in office, they never do anything to help the poor. They forget all about us.” Imani’s words reflect the frustration of Americans living in poverty who do not feel represented by their elected officials, who have lost faith in American democracy, and who feel they have no “place at the table.” As president, what would you do to encourage and facilitate more civic participation in America, and to ensure that our elected leaders are responsive to the needs of all American people, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or income?