Friday, March 14, 2014

Bye bye, Blogger: Just Harvest has a new blog!

We have left our Blogger address and are now at our new home on our new website.

Check out all the great new blog posts there!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The 8 immoral ways the government shutdown is hurting the needy

The following post was originally published by The Washington Post yesterday, Oct. 15, 2013. We reprint this Washington Post piece in advance of Sr. Simone Campell's appearance as the keynote speaker next week at Just Harvest's 25th Annual Harvest Celebration Dinner on Tuesday, October 22. Tickets are still available.

Grocery bags loaded with food from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, sit in a cart before being loaded into a vehicle in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. Despite a partial shutdown of the federal government, Mississippi has gotten permission to keep operating WIC through October. WIC helps pregnant, breastfeeding and post-partum women, plus infants and children younger than five and affects more than 94,000 low- to moderate-income women and children. Money to pay for WIC goes through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the state Health Department operates 96 distribution sites for the program. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Grocery bags loaded with food from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, sit in a cart before being loaded into a vehicle in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. Despite a partial shutdown of the federal government, Mississippi has gotten permission to keep operating WIC through October. WIC helps pregnant, breastfeeding and post-partum women, plus infants and children younger than five and affects more than 94,000 low- to moderate-income women and children. Money to pay for WIC goes through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the state Health Department operates 96 distribution sites for the program. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Many of us have been dismayed by media coverage of the government shutdown, which has too rarely focused on its impact on already struggling families in our nation. Instead, media outlets have chosen easy visuals such as barricades in front of parks and monuments, along with disappointed tourists. Only a tiny percentage of segments broadcast by news outlets the first week of the government shutdown mentioned its effects on people already struggling at the economic margins.

As media obsession with political brinksmanship continues, we must refocus their attention on how real people are being badly hurt. That this is happening in the richest nation on earth is both morally wrong and shameful.

Nutrition Programs
Can anyone justify limiting or eliminating nutrition assistance to low-income women and their young children?
According to a memo from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, if the shutdown continues through October, federal funding for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) assistance program may not be sufficient to cover all benefits.

We have already heard reports that some states closed WIC offices in response to the federal shutdown, and that in some places, grocery stores refused to honor WIC vouchers, assuming they wouldn’t get paid. On October 9, the Kansas Department of Health Environment ordered local WIC offices to only issue checks for October and to withhold November and December payments.

And though most WIC offices are open, many mothers in need have feared or mistakenly assumed that benefits were cut off.

Head Start
Thousands of poor children are losing their preschool access because of the shutdown, which left more than 20 programs across 11 states without funding on the heels of devastating sequester cuts. This number will grow if the shutdown lingers.

“Government shutdown is one cut atop an already deep wound,” according to the National Head Start Association.

Temporary Assistance For Needy Families
Congress missed the October 1 deadline to reauthorize Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which is a cash assistance program for needy families. States may be able to extend operations through the end of October, but they have already stopped receiving federal funds. Some states are already announcing that they could soon run out of funds.

Low-income Wage Earners
Many low-wage workers are losing their paychecks or seeing their earnings dwindle even further. Examples include government mailroom clerks, many of whom are people with disabilities, who work for government contractors. Even when federal employees are told they will be paid for the time of the government shutdown, mailroom clerks and many others who work for government contractors receive no such assurance. These employees often live paycheck-to-paycheck and their suffering is real.

Job Training Programs
The lapse in federal funding due to the shutdown may also halt employment and training programs for people who rely on food stamps (SNAP). These programs, known as SNAP E&T, are being left to their own devices during the shutdown, according to a Department of Agriculture (USDA) memo. The amount of cash on hand to cover the loss of funding for these job programs varies from state to state.

SNAP E&T funds not just job training, but also GED classes, work search and placement programs, and other efforts to help food stamp recipients improve their job qualifications and find work that will lift them out of poverty.

Energy Assistance
As cold weather is already affecting parts of our nation, some states are warning that funds for low-income energy assistance programs could run out by November if the shutdown continues.

Child Welfare Services
The Administration for Children and Families announced that certain child welfare programs will not be funded during the shutdown.

Public Housing
HUD expects that the 3,300 Public Housing Authorities may not be able maintain normal operations due to lack of funding. As is true for many other programs, a lack of staffing because of government worker furloughs makes it difficult to administer needed services.

Much more
These are just a few of the more obvious impacts of the shutdown on people at the economic margins. It is clear that ongoing needs will not be met for millions of our fellow Americans. But for pregnant women and mothers who must choose who gets to eat; for children being cared for by neighbors and relatives because their parents need to work and they have no school to attend; for Americans trying to improve their plight through job training…well, for them, the shutdown is causing real pain.

People everywhere should be outraged. Today, I am joining an interfaith group of religious leaders visiting the offices of House members, calling on them to vote for “clean” budget and debt ceiling legislation so we can reopen government. I hope people across the nation will demand the same.

Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, and leader of the “Nuns on the Bus” campaigns for economic justice and immigration reform. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Poor Gingrey

Photo courtesy of
Laura Basset/The Huffington Post
Last week Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) complained in a closed-door GOP meeting that many congressional aides "may be 33 years old now and not making a lot of money. But in a few years they can just go to K Street and make 500,000 a year. Meanwhile I'm stuck here making $172,000 a year."

The context of his remarks was a conversation about the increased costs Congressional legislators and their staffers may have to endure because of partisan maneuvering related to the Affordable Care Act.

As the ACA was originally written, President Obama had expressly allowed the continuance of the federal government health plan - essentially an employer-based health plan for Congress and its staff. But then Republicans attached an amendment to the ACA to force Congressional legislators and their staff to instead purchase coverage in the new health insurance exchanges without any employer contribution. Why? Perhaps they cynically assumed if federal legislators knew their own pocketbooks would be affected they wouldn’t pass the bill, and in the meantime they could pretend they were only doing what was fair. After all, the public should be outraged over the supposed "special treatment" Obama wanted Congress to enjoy! But Congress saw through this ruse, and passed the ACA without this added language.

But Gingrey and other top Republicans are still pushing the Orwellian-titled "No Special Treatment for Congress Act" in a last-ditch effort to turn Congress against the ACA. His colleagues are none to happy with the tactic as it means they will lose their free government health coverage. Thus, Gingrey’s “poor me” quote about how rich these complainers actually are compared to him.

We feel for him. So we decided to see if we could help him out with some food stamps. Just Harvest's Ken Regal checked the eligibility guidelines for him:

Turns out Mr. Gingrey meets the gross income limit – as long as he has 26 people in his household*. Unless of course he's over the asset limit imposed by Pennsylvania and some other states. But what are the odds that he's been able to sock away $9,000 in savings with 26 mouths to feed?**

Oh, and that's with the higher income limits available through categorical eligibility – now that he voted to eliminate that, he'd been ineligible again if the House bill was approved by the Senate and White House.***

*Only 19 required if someone in the household is elderly or disabled.
 **Just checked his online financial disclosure data here. It turns out he has a net worth of somewhere between $2.9 and $7.6 million dollars. Good thing for him that he lives in Georgia, where the state opted out of the asset test.
***oops, Georgia isn't one of the states that opted into categorical eligibility, so at the regular income limits, he needed 32 people in his household anyway. We still have to see if he meets the "net income guidelines," and for that we’d need his mortgage statement, child care expenses, utility bills, and probably several other items as well.

But here's the kicker: Members of Congress actually earn $174,000 per year, not $172,000. When he turns in his pay stubs and the caseworker discovers that he understated his income, that will set off all kinds of reds flags for his phone interview. He’ll likely be denied after all. It’s a good thing Rep. Gingrey supports cracking down on "waste, fraud, and abuse" in the food stamp program to catch all the scoundrels like him.

--Ken Regal, Executive Director

Friday, September 20, 2013

Blaming the victims; or, It’s the 5th Anniversary of the Great Recession and all I got is this lousy t-shirt

Five years ago this week, one of the country’s largest investment banks went bankrupt. With the bursting of the “housing bubble,” Lehman Brothers’ risky financial escapades put not just them but the entire US economy on the brink of collapse. Credit markets seized up, policymakers were panicked, the stock market was plummeting, and other big banks feared mass withdrawals would leave them ruined as well.

That month, 117,373 people in Allegheny County were on Food Stamps. In the five years since, that number has grown by about 38% - 45,000 people.

Five years ago, the economy was in free fall, with monthly job losses for September at 432,000 growing to a total of 6.8 million by the end of 2009.

One result of the collapse in jobs and earnings, of course, was collapsing tax revenue. The Federal government’s income plummeted by more than $400 billion from 2008 to 2009. (It did not recover to pre-recession levels until this year.)

Nevertheless, in response to the massive economic emergency, the federal government had to increase its spending: big bailouts of banking and insurance giants-  to protect the financial system from even greater disaster; Recovery Act spending to  avoid a massive economic depression; automatic increases in programs like Unemployment compensation, Food Stamps, and Medicaid as the number of eligible people in need grew at an unprecedented rate.

Yet many leading economists like Nobel-prize winner Paul Krugman said the government wasn’t spending enough. More was needed to help those on Main St., not just Wall St. They predicted, amid the rightwing shrieks of “won’t somebody think of the deficit?!” that a gradual, lukewarm, and incomplete recovery would follow.

He was right. Today, Gross Domestic Project has fully recovered, General Motors ($1.4 billion in profits last quarter) and Bank of America ($3.6 billion in profits for Q2 of 2013, up 63% from the year before) have recovered, the stock market has recovered. Even the federal budget is recovering, with the deficit expected to fall by about half this year. But poverty has not.

According to the most recent data available, 6.2 million more Americans were living in poverty in 2012 than in 2008.

So, yes, food stamp participation and spending are up. And that’s the part that Eric Cantor and most Congressional Republicans are so angry about. “Spending is out of control!” “The safety net has become a hammock!” “$20 billion in food stamp cuts aren’t nearly enough!”

Yesterday in the House of Representatives, a narrow majority consisting entirely of Republicans passed the second half of the Food and Farm bill that, if approved by the Senate, would kick an estimated 3.8 million people off food stamps. An estimated $40 billion would be “saved” by taking food out of the mouths of hungry Americans. Hundreds of thousands of children could also lose their free school meals. The law imposes “work requirements” on the small segment of recipients who are the able-bodied unemployed, but offers them no help in finding jobs or in creating new jobs for them to find.

The Senate, which passed “only” $4.5 billion in SNAP cuts in their version of the bill, won’t likely approve ten times that amount, but now the negotiation begins far further to the right, increasing the likelihood of harsher measures and further cuts, or of no new Food and Farm Bill at all. 

The House is leading the country over a cliff. Its leaders clearly have no real plan to reduce poverty; only to reduce help to people in poverty. They steadily and insistently march us towards austerity, balanced-budgets, tax cuts, and cuts to government spending – strategies that have failed to improve tough economic conditions over and over and over again in modern history and across the globe.

The House leadership argues that because the hedge fund managers and Wall Street financiers that CAUSED the great recession have recovered, the victims of the recession – without economic shelter when the sky fell - must have recovered too. Those 6.2 million more poor people should just “go get a job.” Unemployment has fallen slightly to 7.3%, but those same Republicans are only too happy to crow that the drop isn’t due to more jobs but to more people utterly discouraged about finding work. “Thanks, Obama!”.

So which is it? The economy is still in a tailspin, or the poor are lazy? Only the wealthy have recovered, or the poor are lazy? Most new jobs pay poverty wages, or the poor are lazy? We’ve shredded the social safety net, unions, and our public schools, or the poor are lazy?

The facts are clear, but whatever you choose to believe, say no to food stamp cuts. Enough bullying of working families, children, the elderly, and the disabled. The smartest way to reduce long-term spending on food stamps is to reduce the need – to reduce poverty and inequality. We have the means and we have the wealth, but Congress has neither the compassion nor the will to help those in need.

Get involved. Raise your voice. Tell Congress it’s time for a new direction.

--Ken Regal, Executive Director

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Unfinished Business from the Great March on Washington

If we want to honor the Great March on Washington that took place fifty years ago today, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to nostalgia and reciting speeches. We should work to fulfill the concrete economic justice demands of the marchers.

The news media and the public, across the political spectrum, have given tremendous attention in recent days to the historic event. This attention has included an anniversary march and rally at the Lincoln Memorial, frequent news clippings of Dr. King’s speech, interviews with civil rights movement heroes, and retrospectives on our nation’s progress towards racial inclusiveness.

But precious little attention has been paid to the fact the official policy goals of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – as it was called at the time – were not only about civil rights and the end of racial discrimination.

crowds gathered at Reflecting Pool, 1963 Great March on Washington, John Lewis quote

Organizers of the March had set nine specific goals for the actions that the federal government should take to address “Jobs and Freedom.” Six of these goals were explicitly about civil rights, and have, over the past half-century, been largely achieved.

But the March on Washington explicitly called for three other goals that were aimed at basic economic opportunity for all Americans. These remain largely unfulfilled.

1.      A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide.
Yes, I suppose the Marchers succeeded. The minimum wage, which was $1.25 per hour at the end of 1963, finally reached $2.00 eleven years later. Today, it is a whopping $7.25 which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, is equivalent to $0.95 in 1963. Adjusted for inflation, the $2.00/hour demand of the Marchers fifty years ago would equal $15.25 now. Just slightly more than the $15.00 demanded at recent rallies and strikes targeting the fast food industry. The protesters at the McDonald's in Pittsburgh and across the nation are the heirs of the marchers, continuing the unfinished business of 1963. Imagine if they were joined by 250,000 companions at the mall in Washington, with headlines and live TV network coverage for their demand for a $15.25 minimum wage. Perhaps just like in 1963, their opposition in Congress would smear the march as "communist-inspired."

2.      A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to currently excluded employment areas.
The news is not too bad here, as many farmworkers received Fair Labor Standards Act protection in 1966 and many domestic service workers won FLSA coverage in 1974. But farmworkers who are “traditionally” paid piecemeal for their work still get no overtime. Some home health aides defined by the law as providing “companionship” services have no minimum wage or overtime rights. And untold thousands of workers are routinely exploited by workplaces abuses such as falsified timecards and being misclassified as "independent contractors" in jobs from child care to trucking to construction.

3.      A program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed.
Direct government hiring of unemployed people to do Public Works hasn’t happened since the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Not even today’s “liberals” in Congress dare to put such an extreme measure on the agenda. In August 1963, the official unemployment rate was 5.4%. Today, it is 7.4%. Instead of celebrating that it is down from its Great Recession peak of 10.0%, why doesn’t the Obama administration propose a massive public employment program? And instead of arguing that the "stimulus didn’t work" – despite the fact that  unemployment DID decline significantly as a result – why won’t Republicans,  who claim to support the work ethic and the American dream of self-sufficiency, support such a stimulus plan? After all, some of them now want to impose work requirements on food stamp recipients. What part of “7.4% unemployment” don’t they understand? And to those who argue that public works are a waste of money, I invite you to come for a walk with me some evening at the beautiful Highland Park Reservoir. Right there on the walkway to one of Pittsburgh’s great quality-of-life public assets is the stone inscription: “Built by the WPA.”

Yes, there is much unfinished business from August 28, 1963. After half a century, it is no longer time for dreams, but time to make real a day when our children will be judged by the content of their character, not by the contents of their wallets. The best way to honor the marchers is to join their fight to end all inequality.

--Ken Regal, Executive Director

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Bullies With Buggies -- How Register Rage Blinds Otherwise Reasonable People to the Facts

I never really understood why or how people manage to monitor the grocery shopping habits of other people in their line. Yes, I might glance in someone's cart while waiting my turn in line, but I tend to look away -- sort of good manners dictating that I not stare at what people are purchasing. And beyond idle curiosity, I really don't care.

But there's a persistent group of bullies in our society who use grocery shopping to exert moral pressure on poor people to prove they "earned" the right to choose their own groceries. As a lesbian and survivor, I use the term bullies with intent because its not just an analogy -- the behavior of these people, from the lady in line at the Giant Eagle to Congressmen has a very real impact on the welfare of our neighbors including many, many children -- an impact that's profoundly harmful and destructive.

Fact: Food stamp (SNAP) fraud is very low - so low in fact that it is literally not worth investing more money into fraud prevention. Because it works. The people using SNAP at the Giant Eagle or Wal-Mart have already proven they deserve the benefit via an application and verification process.

Bully Spin: "My won't get a job and gets $1,000 in food stamps." Thus I am choosing to believe that the facts are wrong because of one person that I know. Or used to know. Or know through a friend.

Fact: The grocery stores are clear on what can and cannot be purchased with food stamps. Food can be purchased. Items like soap, paper towels, cleaning supplies, deodorant, shampoo, tampons, and tooth paste cannot be purchased.

Bully Spin: I choose to ignore that this adult cannot buy soap and tooth paste and focus instead on how I imagine she's misusing my money. I can't control Wall Street or corporate fraud or even how my own elected officials conduct themselves - I feel helpless and frightened for my own financial future, so I'm going to find SOME way to control something. Kicking the dog will suffice when I cannot kick the boss back. After all, it was my money that paid for the dog.

Fact: Most people on food stamps are working, disabled, retired or children.

Bully Spin: Maybe if I shame them, they'll work a little harder. At least I'll feel better.

Fact: Judging other people based on what you observe in one trip to the grocery store is not fair or reasonable. It is also usually not how our faith communities teach us to conduct ourselves. When you behave like this, no matter how subtle, you hurt someone - yourself. You lessen yourself as a person by casting judgment. Your kids notice and follow in your footsteps. The kids being judged notice and absorb it and feel it. The retired or disabled senior is reminded of a shame and stigma associated with not being self-reliant. You do this when you roll your eyes and mutter.

Bully Spin: I don't care. I don't think about the consequences of my reactions because I'm so concerned with day to day life. It isn't fair that I can't buy those things, that we have to scrimp, that our jobs are in jeapordy. I don't have that kind of cell phone and my kids have never had crab legs. It has to be someone's fault that I'm so tired and worn down from taking care of my family and still can't get ahead. It must be someone's fault.

This is what The Huffington Post explored in a recent poll asking Americans how people should spend their food stamps. The results are dismaying -- is it OK to buy junk food? is it OK to buy expensive organic vegetables? is it OK to buy meat? cake? or crab legs?

How about asking -- is it OK that a family with two working parents has to rely on food stamps AND a food pantry to feed their two kids? Is it OK to pay people with debit cards so they rack up fees accessing money they earned by working? Is it OK that a disabled person or a senior citizen is supposed to live on $900 a month?

In Pittsburgh, we call our shopping carts "buggies" so here's a story of a Buggy Bully from a Pittsburgh Giant Eagle via the The Huffington Post:
Janina Riley noticed a woman muttering behind her in the checkout line as she paid for food at a Giant Eagle grocery store in Pittsburgh last April.
"I can't believe she's buying that big-ass cake with food stamps," the woman said, according to Riley.
Riley, 19, had just used a government-issued debit card to pay for most of her groceries, which included a cake for her son that said "Happy First Birthday Xavier" in a theme from the movie "Cars." She glared at the women for a second, then decided to confront her.
"I was just like, 'Shut the fuck up,'" Riley said. "You don't know what I'm doing with these food stamps."
But many Americans do not want to let people on food stamps eat cake. This sentiment is particularly prevalent among conservatives in Congress. Cash register resentment of the sort directed at Riley feeds Republican animus toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Now I would like to applaud Ms. Riley for leaning in and pushing back against a bully. I'm not sure that's always the best or safest response (or effective) but I think it catches people off guard to hear people actually feel dignity and self-worth in spite of the relentless bullying.

But standing up to bullies requires allies -- it requires all of us to say "Shut the fuck up" (in our heads maybe) and then point out "You don't know!"

You don't know the person's story or situation or circumstances. You don't know how they ended up here or where they are headed. You don't know why or how they have an iPhone or a nice watch or dress in smart clothes. You don't know why they came to the store in a car nicer than yours. You don't know why they have three or four children with them.

You DO know that this is a human being, a neighbor, a person in your community -- and they deserve your compassion and respect, regardless of how they are paying for their groceries.

What more do you really need to know?

--Authored by Sue Kerr and first published by Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents. Follow Sue on Twitter: @pghlesbian24

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Prosperity for the rich, ridicule for the poor

If you didn't read the recent op-ed in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, America's food stamp mentality, I'll save you the bother. If you're anything like me - and thankfully, most people are more like me than like the author Jennifer Stefano, the Pennsylvania director of America for Prosperity - it would just make your blood boil. I found it completely offensive - both its intent and its purposeful misstatement of facts.

Ms. Stefano's entire argument in this op-ed rests on "data" that have no basis in reality. She claimed there are 101 million Americans who receive some kind of subsidized food assistance, a number that "has surpassed the number of full-time private sector workers in our country." Actually, there are 114 million private sector workers in the United States, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics' data for June 2013, But where is she getting the first part of her claim?

The number in her deeply flawed assumption comes from merely adding up the total participation in every USDA food program and concluding that the 32 million children who get school lunch are completely different from the 10.6 million children who get school breakfast. She then concluded that none of those individuals are among the 46 million Americans on food stamps. This is completely absurd on its face.

I appreciate that the Trib editors, in the online version of this op-ed, already removed her most obviously dishonest assertions from the printed version. Read in their original state, these wild distortions of the truth gave the reader a fuller picture of the depths of Ms. Stefano's disdain for people struggling to make ends meet. These included the claim that unlike when FDR started the food stamp program, now "it's a debit card, administered by big Wall Street firms making major dollars off the program. With food stamps you can buy magazines, sodas, cigarettes and condoms, or you can sell them for cash, 55 cents on the dollar." There isn't a word in that statement that's true. It's good the Trib recognized that.

But I suspect Ms. Stefano knows the facts are not on her side, which is why she's trying so desperately and cynically to mislead. She pits neighbor against neighbor to the benefit of her and her cohorts. The Americans for Prosperity has an agenda, and it has nothing to do with helping the average American, her folksy "kitchen table" talk aside. The prosperity they're interested in protecting is that of their right-wing funders: the Koch brothers and their ilk – the top 1%.

It's a reprehensible agenda, and the title of her op-ed shows her hand. What, pray tell, is a food stamp mentality? When I was on food stamps I was in college, trying to better myself so I could fully support my infant son. I was struggling and I was scared but I was determined, and grateful for a safety net. And it paid off: I got my degree and I haven't been on food stamps since.

But apparently AfP would argue that my fellow citizens should have turned their backs and let us both go hungry, with the misery, poor health, and poor outcomes that would have inevitably entailed.

Or they would argue I should have been mandated to take whatever minimum-wage job I could have gotten with only a high school diploma – jobs that don't cover the costs of living, much less the cost of daycare. Many in Congress, supported by groups like the Koch brothers and AfP, make exactly that argument when they try to advance work requirements for people on food stamps. As if half of all food stamp recipients aren't children, which they are. As if most able-bodied adult food stamp recipients aren't already working, which they are.

As if it's better - in a country where the Koch brothers' agenda is shifting more and more of the nation's wealth to the richest 1% – to condemn struggling families to a lifetime of poverty. Better that then to help lift them up to a place where they don't need help anymore? No, the truly impoverished mentality is that of Ms. Stefano and her heartless billionaire patrons.

--Maria Muzzie, Community Organizer