Out of Time: Work Requirements and College Life

by Willie Francois | September 12, 2018 7:06 pm

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Almost one in eight Americans live under the discriminating tyranny of food insecurity. Bureaucratic hurdles to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—formerly known as food stamps—stunt the strides of hardworking Americans, leaving them stuck in urban pockets of food scarcity and health deficits. On the federal level, we need a farm bill that expands access to affordable, quality food. For a thoroughly democratic, equitable economy to exist in America, food sufficiency belongs at the fore. Access to affordable, quality food is a human right for all, not a privilege for a curated few.

As a pastor in an economically depressed region of New Jersey, I bump up against deleterious implications of hunger and limited access to food. Currently a junior at Rutgers University-Mays Landing, Tika Byrd, a lifelong resident of Pleasantville, NJ, recently initiated a new application for SNAP in New Jersey in spite of the previous notifications of ineligibility. She remarks, “Most days I feel they aren’t really worth all the trouble to get them, and that’s their deterrent. They make it hard for you to get food stamps so that you give up seeking assistance. It worked in my case, twice!”

In Tika’s hometown, save for a smattering of bodegas and multi-purpose discount stores, only one grocery store, La Cosecha, operates within the city limits of Pleasantville. “Food is extremely expensive,” Tika, 42,  added. “Healthy food options are even more limited. Produce markets and dollar stores are the best choices to stretch your dollars, but the dollar store doesn’t always have healthy choices.”

Unexpectedly pregnant, Tika dropped out of college as a sophomore at DeVry University-New Brunswick in 1995. Subsequent to 20 years of cycling underemployment and unemployment, she returned to the halls of academia with a tenacious conviction to ameliorate her economic footing and expand her employment possibilities. With demonstrated agility, she juggles the tremendous burdens of studying as a nontraditional college student and negotiating a household food budget that aligns with her nutritional-fitness goals and monthly income. However, Congress’ recent partisan theater threatens to close the curtain on people like Tika, whose only fault is finding the time to work a job, perform well as a student and meet the impositions of SNAP requirements.

In June, the House passed a partisan farm bill, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, which would severely gut SNAP. The existing farm bill expires at the end of September, jeopardizing access to food for 42 million Americans. The Republican-backed House bill threatens to leave five million of the current SNAP enrollees with limited options for securing food in homes as a result of increased work requirements and senseless restrictions on certain formerly incarcerated persons. The Senate’s version of the Farm Bill retains the SNAP provisions of the existing law but fails to expand access to more Americans.

I believe America deserves universal access to food. As the farm bill heads into conference, a negotiation period where the House and Senate bills reconcile before arriving at President Trump’s desk, food support for millions of Americans fragilely swings in the balance. American would be better served with no farm bill than the mean-spirited and racially biased bill proposed by the House GOP.

Augmenting work requirement fails to correct our hunger problem; it exacerbates the issue

Detailing the intricacy of her latest SNAP denial in 2017, Tika said, “I was excited to finally receive the benefit. At first, I had been denied, but a month later I received an award letter granting me $168 per month and a retroactive total of $500.”  After a short-lived enthusiasm and growing consternation, she continued, “Once I received my card, it had only $227 on it.” Despite several attempts for clarification of the fund discrepancy, the Atlantic County personnel offered no explanation. Two months into the anti-hunger program, she received a notice reversing her eligibility and discontinuing her enrollment.

Earning less than $700 a month as a part-time administrative assistant, Tika experienced this unexpected barrier to affordable, quality food as a result of time constraints, not the program’s income ceiling or a failure to secure qualifiable employment. The county terminated her enrollment and categorized her as ineligible, because the demands of economic survival that require Tika to work part-time, pick up jobs and study as a part-time student prevent her from volunteering in one of the county’s designated programs. The conditional approval Tika received stipulated she needs to volunteer 15 hours a week, while the guidelines could impose 35 hours of volunteer time on a SNAP participant in New Jersey. These particular work expectations bar enrollment in SNAP and stigmatize her as a non-working drain on the system.

The draconian expansion of work requirements limits access to food for millions of hardworking families barely eking out of their consuming monthly financial obligations. These shifts in SNAP enrollment only codify, again, the history of stigmatizing nonwhite families as economic parasites and the burden of white society. The proposed federal work requirements, alongside the existing conditions in some states, plays into a racist narrative of Black people as freeloaders.   

From the arrest of unemployed former slaves under black codes to the Reagan-manufactured political specter of the Welfare Queen, America stitches the assumptions of Black laziness into the fabric of the law and weaves a narrative of Black dependence into the mainstream. Kaaryn Gustafson pens, “This image of the lazy African-American woman who refuses to get a job and keeps having kids is pretty enduring. It’s always been a good way to distract the public from any meaningful conversations about poverty and inequality.”

During the era of chattel slavery and then the reconstruction, white audiences of all economic classes frequented minstrel shows as forms of entertainment, which characteristically typecast Black people as lazy, as white men performed in blackface.  Even President Donald Trump, as a private citizen and Atlantic City Casino tycoon, said identified laziness as a trait of Black people, according to Trump biographer John O’Donnell.   

According to 2016 data from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 42 percent of Republicans perceived Black people as lazier than White people, while 24 percent of Democrats fostered the same bias. The GOP-backed House farm bill codifies these number as they attempt to penalize unemployment and underemployment as moral failure of persons without jobs and people like Tike forced into economic gymnastics—balancing work, school, and work.

In spite of what the spirit of this type of legislation intimates, women like Tika live and work with dignity far removed from the narratives of dependent idleness and occupational indolence. After graduating from Atlantic Cape Community College with an associate degree in paralegal studies, Tika continues to discern a call to jurisprudence and law school, which paved her academic path to the said satellite campus of Rutgers as a liberal studies major. Where do they expect her to find the extra time to volunteer in a program that mirrors her current part-time job without compromising her grades and lowering her necessary earning power?  

As Congress negotiates a critical anti-hunger policy over the next several weeks, we deserve a farm bill that expands access to SNAP and dismantles the American food apartheid. I reference apartheid in the context of America’s hunger crisis to distinguish between what is commonly called a food desert. Deserts are natural phenomena, but apartheid results from policies and structural enforcement. Considering all the wealth of America, it is criminal to see hunger as natural or normal. A farm bill that places food in the reach of all Americans, despite the length of their financial arms, allows this nation to live up to its founding creedal commitment to life, liberty and inherent equality of all people.

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