When I think of a democracy, I envision all citizens having their basic needs met. This includes having food to eat. Ensuring food security seems like the bare minimum that you’d expect from a democratic society that cares for its people. But this is not the reality many of us are living here in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says 10 percent of U.S. households are food insecure, while Feeding America says this means 34 million people — including 9 million children — experience food insecurity to some degree.
When citizens are struggling to take care of their basic needs and focused on daily survival, it is less likely they will be active participants in democracy. If they aren’t even sure where their next meal is coming from, it’s pretty difficult to make room to think about who their next representative will be.
Those who don’t have food security typically are also struggling to cover their other essential needs. When people live like this, they are not able to thrive. They are experiencing high levels of stress, and living in survival mode. They don’t have the time or energy to think about anything else — including getting involved in their community through organizing, advocacy, running for office, or otherwise participating in our democratic process.
Statistics prove this harsh reality that poor and hungry people have lower political participation rates. An August 2020 study from the Poor People’s Campaign found low-income eligible voters were 22 percentage points less likely to vote in national elections than those with higher incomes. They concluded that low-income and poor voters may have lower rates of participation in part because they feel that politicians do not listen to their demands and needs, and therefore may feel as if their votes don’t matter. They also found poor and low-income voters are dealing with issues such as disabilities, illnesses, transportation issues, and voter suppression laws that may prevent them from getting to the polls.
To combat the problem of decreased voting participation among low-income voters, groups like the Poor People’s Campaign, Community Change Action, and others have launched initiatives to engage with and mobilize low-income voters. They are able to make meaningful connections because they speak on issues that directly affect low-income voters such as living wages, healthcare, child care, housing, programs fighting against poverty, and policies addressing systemic racism and sexism. Community Change Action has a voter outreach program that includes training folks from low-income backgrounds to do this outreach, which also helps to build trust.
Still, many people are too distracted by the urgent need to try and cover essentials to devote much time or energy to thinking about the democratic process. The soaring cost of groceries isn’t helping matters. The USDA says grocery prices rose more than 11 percent last year, with costs for some essential items skyrocketing — the price of eggs, for example, rose a whopping 32 percent. As a mother of three, I am painfully aware of this spike in food prices. When you are trying to budget, every dollar counts.
Instead of waiting on the government to do its job, many non-profit organizations are using social media and turning to members of their local community to make up for the lack of support for basic needs. There’s also a grassroots “neighbor helping neighbor” movement fueled by concerned community members that has gained so much momentum it prompted Facebook to create a special tool to support these activities.
In many Facebook “mom groups,” you’ll see local moms posting free items such as used household items, baby stuff, clothing, toiletries, and groceries that they are willing to give away to anyone in need. I’ve noticed that the posts involving grocery items get a big response, with the items always claimed right away. This small example illustrates the experiences of people all over the United States and our great need for food security.
Locally in South Florida, I see the long lines of people collecting food from food banks. These people seeking food support often don’t meet the idea many people have in their minds about those who need these services. They are not all homeless, and many are not unemployed. With the state of our economy, even if one adult in the home is working full-time or juggling multiple jobs, it is very difficult to make ends meet. Many times families are going hungry, just barely able to scrape together enough to pay their rent — no easy feat when you consider rent prices have also surged.
While there are government safety net programs like cash assistance and the SNAP program, many people who are struggling don’t qualify for them. And the House Republicans aren’t making matters any easier. They recently passed a bill that threatens to make massive cuts to safety net programs from TANF and WIC, to Pell Grants for college and child care slots. In Florida alone, the bill would strip food assistance from 833,000 people.
A guaranteed income or a permanent expanded Child Tax Credit could help solve this problem, ensuring everyone has some money to use towards food and other basic needs without being forced to navigate the red tape and bureaucratic obstacles involved in qualifying for need-based programs.
When people have a little more breathing room with guaranteed forms of income — and they’re not having to count every penny to pay the bills or make impossible choices about whether they should go into debt to pay for childcare or end their career and live paycheck to paycheck — they are able to get more involved in their communities, their school board elections, their town hall meetings. They have down time to form a club of mothers and talk about the issues they face and how to act together to make change. They get organized and they make their voices heard.
Those are the makings of building a true multi-racial democracy.
Before I was a mother of three, I was actively involved in civic community groups, but once I had my two youngest children, it has been really difficult to continue attending local meetings especially right after the pandemic. Right now I am actively seeking a club specifically for mothers involved in helping other mothers in need and who want to participate in making policy changes.
I truly believe that in order for us, the voters, to demand policy changes, we must act. We have to make our voices be heard and the only way to do this is by participating any way that we can. Perhaps we can use our parents groups to organize more than food aid and kid drop-offs. We could take turns providing child care so some of us can attend town halls and advocate for funding to make care more affordable. We could devise a schedule so while some of us are picking up food from the pantry, others of us can be phonebanking to demand Congress fully fund programs like SNAP and TANF.
Together, we can work to end the cycle where folks are not able to secure basic needs and therefore unable to participate in our democracy. Being an active citizen should not be a luxury of the well-off. We all deserve a say in what happens in our communities.