Voices of Everyday Leaders

by Willie Francois | November 28, 2018 10:15 am

Cutting “Food Stamps” is Child Abuse

Every Sunday Jose “Frankie” Benjamin-Nay, an 18-year old Puerto Rican-American, darkens the doors of Mount Zion Baptist Church to provide technical support for the sound team. The few hundred congregants of Mount Zion relish in Frankie’s riotous sense of humor, anticipate his eccentric clothing combinations and embrace his whimsical quirks. An only child to a single mother, Frankie enjoys a family of churchgoers intentional about allowing Frankie to matriculate into adulthood with compassion and accountability. Most of us failed to perceive that underneath Frankie’s smile and style lived a growling stomach and anxious heart. Without access to “food stamps,” Frankie’s family of two would join the dastardly long line of victims of our nation’s food injustice.  

In June, the House passed a partisan farm bill, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, which would severely gut SNAP. While the bill passed by the Senate maintains the existing work qualifications for the anti-hunger program, the GOP-backed House bill threatens to leave five million of the current SNAP enrollees with limited options for securing food in their homes as a result of increased work requirements and senseless restrictions on certain formerly incarcerated persons. Through draconian work requirements for people currently benefiting from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), House Republicans remain undeterred by the pain they plan to exact on scores of families, one’s like Frankie’s, if aspects of their farm bill prevail in conference. The existing farm bill expired September 30th, causing the conference committee file for an extension.

These morally vacuous cuts to SNAP are lamentable not merely because of metrics and cents. These cuts threaten the futures of millions of families in America. House Republicans insist on playing dice with the lives of hardworking families, mothers feverishly working enough just to end the month in a deficit and children performing at school on empty stomachs. The House GOP-backed farm bill renders people like Frankie economically invisible.

Frankie reminisced, “When I was hungry, my grades suffered. I function a lot better when I eat.” This truth stitches Frankie’s life to millions of children haunted by hunger. The proposed cuts to SNAP, approximately $20 billion, only widens the food gap alongside the achievement and health gaps.  “There were some days I couldn’t focus in class and complete school work because I worried about how I would eat some evenings. At school, I knew I would get at least two meals. I just didn’t know when or if mom’s food stamps were low,” Frankie remembered.

A recent graduate of high school, Frankie recently secured employment through a non-profit agency developed to combat youth unemployment. Frankie stares at the limiting implications of poverty without allowing the genuine chance of missing a meal to starve his bi-vocational dream to become a professional dancer and nurse. “Even when I was younger, I felt the responsibility to make sure my mom ate. By almost any means necessary, I wanted to help out [with making sure we had food]. Mom is an extension of me.”

An overwhelming majority of SNAP households with children include at least one employed resident. Legislation like the partisan House farm bill works to stigmatize families with limited incomes, penalize the underemployed and the unemployed in a white patriarchal nation, and deflate the aspirations of children locked in a proscribed rung of the American caste system.

Recently unemployed, Frankie’s mother may join the litany of economic victims to the House bill in spite of her efforts to secure employment in a city with unemployment double the national rate. The House bill targets folks like Frankie’s family irrespective to the palpable need and obligation to protect said American families. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) frames SNAP as the most beneficial child nutrition program. Nearly one in four children in the US, 20 million children, benefit from SNAP resources in a given month. CBPP reports, “Almost half of all SNAP recipients are children (47 percent), and an additional 26 percent are adults living with children. Forty percent of all SNAP recipients live in households with preschool-age children.” In 2015, The CBPP also profiled the annual household income of SNAP households with children at marginally north of $12,0000. Families with children received SNAP benefits averaging $393 each month in fiscal year 2015 or about $4,700 a year, boosting their income by 38 percent.

Still living with his mother four months after graduating from high school, Frankie recalls evenings when he had to contact family members to borrow money or visit the church’s food pantry.  Ruminating on those untoward experience moments, he added, “I hate asking people for stuff. I believe in working for what I need, but sometimes hard work does bring in enough.”

Congress demonstrates a tragic calcification in their respective ideological silos, and American families sink deeper into the quicksand of economic uncertainty and food insecurity, daily reaching for sturdy limbs to pull themselves out. Congress fails their constituents when immoral policies like one authored into the farm bill land on the President’s desk to be signed.

As Congress endeavors to negotiate this policy, I hope they think of children and young adults like Frankie. America deserves 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. In the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, strategically and legislatively uphold hunger. The House farm bill is child abuse.

The American public holds a civic and ethical obligation to disallow 200 privileged white guys—the predominate constitution of the GOP in the House of Representatives—to decide who deserves to eat in this nation. Access to food remains an inalienable right for all that transcends partisan politics and budget debates.  As a pastor in an economically depressed region of the nation, I consistently bump up against deleterious implications of hunger and limited access to food. American Writer, James Baldwin proffered, “For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become.”

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