March 22, 2017

Hunger games, WV style

This op-ed on efforts to restrict SNAP (formerly known as food stamp benefits) ran in today's Gazette Mail.

I think it’s interesting that many religious traditions uphold the idea of food justice. In part, that notion means that all people should have access to the nourishment that sustains life.

In the Torah, the fountainhead of Judaism, the biblical Book of Leviticus (23:22) requires all keepers of the covenant to leave a portion of their harvest for the poor and the foreigner, a theme reiterated many times by the Hebrew prophets.

The gospels are all about food, both literal and spiritual. One of the strongest passages is in Matthew 25 related to the last judgment. In it, both those destined to be saved and those destined to be damned are pretty surprised at their status. The former are told that they gave the Son of Man food and drink when he was hungry, while the latter did not.

Neither group seems to know exactly what he was talking about. The punchline came when the Judge says that whatever acts of justice or mercy were given to or withheld from “the least among you” was also done to him.

In the Quran, it is written that “In the sight of God, harshness, carelessness or even insensitivity to the suffering of the poor, helpless and hungry is tantamount to denying the religion and the Day of Judgment.”

Even pagans seemed to get the memo. Say what you want about the ancient Romans, but they at least provided food assistance for citizens displaced from their farms when rich aristocrats took over vast tracts of land. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, souls seeking a pleasant afterlife must pledge to the gods among other things that “I have not caused hunger.”

I could go on.

I hope that state legislators recall such ancient wisdom as they contemplate legislation that would restrict SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) assistance through time limits, punitive asset tests, unrealistic requirements, and time limits.

Or at least that they’d do the math.

Whatever noble motives people championing such legislation claim, the end result will be increased hunger and food insecurity. And less money circulating through our communities. And more of a drain on already overburdened food pantries and charities.

This isn’t speculation. It’s a fact.

Last year, the state Department of Health and Human Resources piloted a program implementing just some of these measures in nine counties. These were the most prosperous counties with the least unemployment. Presumably, these would be the counties with the best possible outcomes.

The results are in. Imposing time limits and unsupported requirements on able bodied adults without dependents (so-called ABAWDs, a dehumanizing label) didn’t result in more people being better off. It resulted in more people losing basic assistance and millions of dollars being taken out of the local economy.

Of nearly 14,000 people referred to education and training programs, only 259 gained employment by participation in the program.

There was no growth in the employment of the target population. According to DHHR, “The percentage of working ABAWDs proportional to the total SNAP population has held steady since the work requirements were put into place.”

On the other hand, 5,417 people were cut off. And over $13 million dollars was taken out of the local economy. (Multiply 5,417 by around $200 per month in SNAP benefits times 12 months.)

That was money that could support over 700 full-time retail jobs for a full year at the state’s minimum wage. That unspent local money doesn’t go into some imaginary pool for the “worthy poor” or get refunded to taxpayers. It’s just gone.

And it’s money that would have created jobs, supported food producers and local businesses, been invested in local banks and loaned out to local people for homes, cars and businesses.

DHHR estimates that if these measures were implemented statewide, it would mean the loss of nearly $18 million that could have been circulating through West Virginia’s economy. That’s even more of a loss to local jobs and businesses.

One would hope that considerations of justice, compassion and humanity as expressed in our religious traditions would be considered. Failing that, there’s the hope that considerations of jobs, profits for food producers and local businesses might be considered.

Failing either, the mean spirited political bullying of the least among us might prevail.

The jury is still out. I stand with the Judge.