Food Stamps are Vital to Lifting People Out of Poverty

By Sharon Davies, Executive Director, published in the Columbus Dispatch,

It is almost impossible to fathom what constituents were being represented when the House voted to unhitch the nation’s food stamp program (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) from the farm bill, undoing the compromise that has long ensured the passage of both pieces of legislation. Voters have become accustomed to political gridlock in the nation’s capital, but the indifference to human suffering reflected in this latest congressional act defies understanding.

When I was a child, I learned about the basic humanity of a community that cared enough to feed children when the weekly paychecks of the adults in their lives were too small to accomplish it. My father and mother worked hard to support our family, but their low wages were frequently consumed by other bills. My mother’s high-school education enabled her to find low-level retail work, but my father, raised in rural South Carolina, had stopped after the 6th grade. The school for black children went no further than that. He would struggle with reading all of his life as a result, and my parents’ earnings would always be limited.

But for the social safety nets that surrounded our family, I don’t know what would have become of us. There was a food pantry that supplied staples: powdered milk and instant potatoes. There was a fuel-assistance program that forgave a portion of the cost of the oil that warmed our Massachusetts home on the coldest winter nights. I was vaguely aware that a local dentist and a family doctor in town cared for us first and then permitted my mother to write checks when she “had it.” At Christmastime, my brothers and sisters and I would wait excitedly for a truck loaded with red-mesh stockings stuffed with oranges and trinkets. Like magic, it showed up in our town center year after year. I wish I knew whom to thank for that.

I did not realize it then, but my parents were among what would be called today “the working poor.” Many months they had to decide which bills to pay, and which to forego. Their earnings would never enable their savings to be large, but with help from a VA loan, they were able to secure a long-term, low-interest mortgage to purchase a home, in a town where my siblings and I could walk safely to and from our solidly resourced public school.

And it mattered years later that we happened to live next to a town that was home to a public university with low in-state tuition and a free bus system, and that we could obtain grants and financial aid, supplemented by the student loans we would need to attend.

My parents instilled in us a belief in education and the necessity of hard work, of course, and that was important. But it took the structural support of multiple safety nets to make it possible for each of their six children to graduate from college, and later for five to obtain advanced degrees. We are not examples of American exceptionalism, we are products of human decency.

It is difficult to understand the contempt for the disadvantaged that must lie beneath the withholding of governmental support for something as basic as food stamps. With 1 in 5 children living in poverty today, and food-assistance requests at an all-time high, the vote occurred when need was at its greatest. At times of such decision-making, each of us must ask whether our elected officials are truly representing the values we cherish. For my part, stripping the food-stamp program from the bill that gave it its best chance for survival evoked that question famously asked during the Army-McCarthy hearings: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

As income and wealth inequality have increased over the past three decades, opportunities for economic mobility have diminished. Without safety-net programs targeted at ameliorating poverty, such as Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance, or government interventions aimed at lifting children out of poverty, such as the food-stamp program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, equal opportunity becomes largely a myth and our most basic values face destruction. Our children need to eat. Who could really be against that?

 

Executive Director, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity, John C. Elam/Vorys Sater Professor of Law, Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University. Professor Davies was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar and a Notes and Comments Editor of the Columbia Law Review while in law school at Columbia University. After graduation she worked for Steptoe and Johnson in Washington, D.C. and Lord, Day & Lord Barrett Smith in New York City. Professor Davies served for five years as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Criminal Division of the United States Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York. She joined the law faculty at Ohio State University in 1995, was awarded tenure in 1999, promoted to Full Professor in 2002, and awarded a named professorship in 2003. Professor Davies teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure (Police Practices), Race and the Criminal Law, Civil Rights Law, and Evidence. Professor Davies’ primary research focus is in the area of criminal justice and race. Her articles and other writings have been published in some of the nation’s leading law journals including the Michigan Law Review, the Duke Law Journal, the Southern California Law Review, the Columbia Law Review, and Law and Contemporary Problems. In 2010, Oxford University Press published Davies’s narrative nonfiction account of a 1921 murder trial in Birmingham, Alabama, titled Rising Road, A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America, for which the Mayor of Birmingham awarded her a “Key to the City.”