April 13, 2016

Hunger games, WV style

This op-ed of mine on SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits and hunger appeared in today's Charleston Gazette-Mail.

I’m pretty sure that being poor isn’t nearly as much fun as people who aren’t poor think it is. At least that was the case in the time I spent below that line and I’d just about bet the farm that’s still the case.

The best description I ever found of what it’s like came from the late writer Earl Shorris, who described poverty as living in a “surround of force,” which makes you feel like a hunted animal, always reacting or getting ready to react to the next threat, with little chance to relax or reflect.

He put it this way: “The poor, those who lose in the game of modern society, are thrust into a surround of force. Inside the surround, they experience anomie: panic is limitless action within a surround, but the surround ruthlessly limits the freedom of its objects by enclosing them.”

Bruce Springsteen summed it up pretty well too: you “end up like a dog that’s been beat too much till you spend half your life just covering up.”

Another person who got it right over 100 years ago was the American writer Jack London in his 1902 book “People of the Abyss,” about urban poverty in London. It describes the fragile condition of several individuals and families trying to scrape by, only to be undone by a mishap that those with more means would scarcely notice.

An accident, an illness, a downturn in the economy and the game is up. The words “And then the thing happened” run like a sad refrain through the book.

A lot of things have changed since then, but some things haven’t. Then or now, if you’re living on the edge, the least bump in the road can set off a downward spiral.

That’s one of the main reasons I’m concerned that as many as a million Americans — and several thousand West Virginians — are in danger of losing basic food assistance through SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps.

(The benefits these people rely on aren’t all that generous to start with. If you don’t believe that, try living for a month on a $2-per-meal budget and see how that works. You’ll also see why food pantries get busy at the end of the month.)

Some states with low unemployment rates are imposing strict SNAP time limits and work requirements on working age adults without dependents due to federal mandates. People who don’t meet them can lose food assistance for three years. West Virginia isn’t required to do so, yet it is imposing the same restrictions in nine pilot counties which are home to around 47,000 such adults. These changes are well-intentioned at the state level. I’m all for getting more people back to work and/or participating in education and training. Who isn’t?

However, unless we get this right, this could hurt people who are looking diligently for work but haven’t found any yet. As one advocate from South Carolina put it, “It doesn’t matter how hard you’re looking. If you fill out eighty applications a day, if you don’t have the eighty hours a month then it doesn’t count. You’re going to lose your SNAP benefits for three years.”

It could also impact people who have jobs but can’t find steady work at 20 hours or more per week. According to Shawn Fremstad of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “We’ve seen a long-term trend toward more precarious job conditions for low-skilled workers. Even if you get a job, you’re not guaranteed more than 20 hours a week.” While there are provisions to allow for volunteer hours to make up the difference, many people may not be aware of this option.

SNAP changes could also impact people who have physical or mental disabilities that haven’t been officially recognized as such or who have other obstacles such as lack of transportation. And it could take millions of dollars away from local businesses and further stress already over-burdened local food pantries and charities.

“Making people hungrier isn’t going to make them find work faster,” as Rebecca Vallas of the Poverty to Prosperity Program told the Washington Post.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources is doing a good job of screening and working with this population, but as of last week, over 4,000 were in danger of losing food assistance.

Fortunately, there are ways of making SNAP work requirements work for everyone which may be worth consideration. In Franklin County, Ohio (think Columbus), for example, local food assistance programs and the Ohio Association of Food Banks have come together to create a Work Experience Program which actually meets one-to-one with those affected.

“Our findings indicate that many of our clients struggle with accessing reliable transportation, unstable living conditions, criminal records, education, and both physical and mental health problems,” they report.

The understanding gained by actually talking to people there led to better understandings and outcomes that help them “navigate through many of their challenges, giving our clients a better chance at improving their lives and supporting themselves.”

That’s a worthwhile goal and one that I think people of good will could agree with across the political spectrum.

I’d like to see the state take the time to get it right.


Judith Seaman said...

some years ago, WV tried this same gambit, to have single, "able" Snap recipients come to GEd classes, find a job, or volunteer. I know that of the ones who came to GED classes, many had substance abuse problems or other invisible handicaps. Is the plan to do anything about these invisible problems? I seriously doubt it. Do we want to saddle employers with these marginal workers? Especially when there is no money for treatment? This is a lot to expect from an employer.

Primarily this move is for harassment of the population of poor people.

Anonymous said...

meeting "one-to-one with those affected... actually talking to people..."

what a concept!

sounds a lot like becoming friends with people who are struggling. as opposed to one-size-fits-all programs...

thanks so much for your care and empathy, Rick.

Susan J.