Poverty and Hunger in the Face of the Government Shutdown
Last week we took a look at some of the aid programs that are being shut down due to the government standoff. As the shutdown stretches into its second week, families who rely on assistance are becoming more endangered—and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
When media coverage focuses on our lack of a panda-cam in the National Zoo, I begin to question our priorities. It is, of course, upsetting that our National Parks, monuments and museums are closed; yet I wonder if these fluffier “human interest” stories detract from what our national conversation should really entail? Jokes from late night talk show hosts and the zeitgeist of the internet seem to hang on sardonic jabs at the government—which makes the shutdown appear to be a game.
In fact, the effects of the shutdown on food insecure families in America are life threatening. The more I learn, the angrier I get. Just yesterday a friend of mine from Louisiana shared on her Facebook account that the school lunch program at the elementary school she teaches in was in danger of being discontinued. A large percentage of her students rely on this program for their one stable meal of the day. At the risk of putting it too simply, that just doesn’t seem right.
Policy wonks and concerned citizens alike worry about the government’s ability to continue funding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or, as it is colloquially known, food stamps) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs. WIC, which provides resources to low-income pregnant and postpartum women, as well as infants and children under the age of 5, has been all but shut down by the federal government’s fighting. Luckily, the USDA has managed to creatively keep SNAP functioning for the month of October—and through the use of emergency funds is managing to keep WIC afloat on a week-by-week basis. Still, many who rely on these programs are already feeling the strain.
Lest we think this is a problem that affects “other people” but not our own community, try to remember that in the New York area alone 1 in 5 Jewish individuals live in poverty.
In order to better understand the situation at hand, we turned to a few researchers who examine food policy—and who are actively monitoring the implications of the shutdown on those who are already living without enough food.
We learned that if the shutdown drags on past the end of October, the situation will dramatically worsen: the creative work-around that is presently being used to keep SNAP operational will only work until October 31, when the SNAP related provisions of the Recovery Act expire.
Professor Nicole M. Civita, J.D., LL.M, and food policy expert, shared with JWA that “after that point, there is some contingency funding available to help states continue operating SNAP, but it is my understanding that the funds available are only about 1/3 of what is needed to run the program each month. So it seems that there would be a pretty dramatic shortfall in SNAP benefits if the shutdown lasts into November. One hopes that Congress will get its act together in time to avoid such a crisis.”
As we combed through the information at hand, what struck me most was the personal story of one of the researchers. Erin S. Shirl, an LL.M. Candidate in Agricultural & Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law shared her story with us. When asked why she engaged in food justice work she shared that it was “because I grew up below the poverty line and I know firsthand both the short and long-term effects of a childhood marked by the physical and psychological ramifications of food insecurity.” She went on to say,
I can't speak for the women and children affected by this present crisis, but I will never forget accompanying my mother to the store to purchase what little we could with food stamps, and the shame that crept over me while irritated patrons in line behind us shuffled and sighed as my mother counted out stamps to feed her family. No mother should have to cry herself to sleep at night fearing that she will not be able to feed her children, and no child should have to hear her mother's weeping.
The emotional impact of all that fear, frustration, and shame lasts well into adulthood, and I cannot overstate the lifelong psychological impacts of living in that kind of uncertainty every day, or the strange lingering anxieties that continue to color my attitudes about food, even as a financially secure adult.
My heart breaks for the women and children living through this crisis, for the worry and embarrassment they must feel. We have vilified poverty and those who live in it for so long and so well that to my family, at least, food stamps—too frequently, our most consistent source of food—were a scarlet letter.
These condescending attitudes about poverty and hunger from policymakers make it incredibly difficult for many people to accept government assistance in the first instance, and to ask food insecure Americans to beg for that help from a recalcitrant Congress whose members largely have no personal understanding of poverty is evidence of an extremely broken system.
The reality of being hungry in America is a bleak one, as Erin’s story shows. Being hungry means an immediate physical threat from a lack of sustenance and proper nutrients. But being hungry is also accompanied by a lasting emotional trauma.
The shutdown’s impact on hungry families will continue to be felt even after funding returns to the WIC and SNAP. Each family who needs assistance has been reminded just how vulnerable they truly are—and just how fragile their network of support is. There is a reality here that the politicians on both sides of the aisle have placed their fights before the needs of many American citizens.
Many local food banks rely on the federal government for assistance with their stock, and they—just like the families they serve—will continue to feel the strain of the situation as the shutdown drags on. Different organizations will have different needs, and will appreciate it if you reach out to them asking how you can help. Be sure to ask if they need donations of diapers or baby formula, two things usually covered by the WIC program. And, if you can, think about how you can donate your time, food, and funds.