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

Friday, July 19, 2013


I'm going to ask you to do something a little weird. Ready? Ok, close your eyes and try to picture someone on food stamps. What does he or she look like? Where does he or she live? What does he or she do all day? Think about this image for a minute until you have a complete picture, and then open your eyes.

Now let's see how your mental image compares with reality.

Was the person an adult? Because almost half of food stamp recipients are children.

Was it a white person? Most Pennsylvanians on food stamps are white.

Were they in an urban setting, probably in some Northeasetern city like Philly or NYC? Were they spending the day sitting around unemployed, on welfare?

The reality? Only 8% of food stamp recipients receive cash welfare benefits. The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work, do so. And it's Mississippi that's number one in food stamp enrollment. (Check out food stamp enrollment by state here.)

If the picture on your head was on target – we're glad to hear it. But believe us when we tell you that there are many myths and misconceptions about people on food stamps. You've probably heard some of them: they're on drugs, they're self-indulgent, they're gaming the system – all just bad people living the good life on the public dime.

For these "good life" allegations to sound credible you have to believe all the baloney about what they’re using food stamps to buy – lobster, steak, and trips to the casino. For the "bad people" allegations to sound credible, you have to believe all the baloney about what they're using food stamps to buy – junk food, sweets, alcohol, and cigarettes.

So which is it? They’re living high on the hog with that whopping $4/day, or they’re scarfing down junk food? If you missed it, read this brilliant piece on cash register resentment, and the food people actually buy with their food stamps.

But without the facts it's so much easier to judge, than to feel empathy, isn't it? Which is why the Republican lawmakers that have been arguing the most for cuts to the food stamp program like to trade on these myths and misconceptions, because it helps mask the reality – the thousands of families who will go hungry as a result of their policy decisions.

Lest someone think we have a partisan view of this, there are enemies of hungry people on both sides of the aisle. What's the deal? Are they just mean-spirited? Do they think keeping poor people hungry will teach them a lesson?

The legislators leading the charge against growing food stamp funding claim the program is rife with fraud and abuse, but we know that's not true. The House Republican leadership's decision to split the farm bill in two – an agricultural bill and a nutrition/food stamps bill – was done in the name of "austerity" and reform. If by reform, they meant the rich get richer on taxpayer dollars, well the U.S. seems to be getting pretty expert in that kind of reform.

While leaving food stamps behind, the recent House farms-only farm bill made sure 75 percent of the farm supports go to the biggest 10 percent of farmers. It did so by creating "new special interest carve-outs and unnecessary subsidies that will actually expand the footprint of Washington in agriculture." What's so galling is that they did this despite the fact that "large businesses that benefit from federal agriculture programs are already enjoying record profits," and despite the fact that there is serious fraud and abuse in farm subsidies.

Will they be so generous to food stamp recipients? If only. The $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts the House voted on last time will likely just be a jumping off point. After all, splitting the farm bill in two means they don’t have to limit food stamp cuts in order to win Democratic votes for their farm subsidies – those already passed with the Dems in the minority. And we know there’ll be some cuts, because the Senate has said $4.5 billion in food stamp cuts is fine, and President Obama barely batted an eye at that.

So to sum up where we are with the farm bill and food stamp funding: as Stephen Colbert so aptly put it, "Farm programs cannot wait. We need to grow the food that people can no longer afford to buy."

Whether the final farm bill includes massive gifts to agribusiness at the expense of taxpayers and poor people will be up to us. It’s time to raise our voices and remind our legislators of the cost of hunger and of the price they will pay at the polls next election if they won’t work to help hungry children.

Join us and be a part of this movement.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Chicks in the Hood!

On Sunday, June 9, I participated in the 3rd Annual Chicks in the Hood tour of some of the city's backyard chicken coops. The tour was of the East End and North Side, which have the highest concentration of coops in the city. I recruited my parents, Christina and Ellis, to join me, and we decided to tackle the tour on bicycles. After picking up our maps at the Quiet Storm on Penn Avenue,we checked out some of the Highland Park spots, where we ended up seeing four coops.

I was somewhat familiar with the regulations pertaining to keeping chickens in the city (no roosters allowed!) before the tour, but was surprised to see the variety of the set-ups. Some chickens had permanent enclosures, while others were portable, so the birds could be moved to new grass to forage for grubs. Yard sizes ranged as well from a pretty small city plot to a sprawling expanse on the Allegheny riverfront.
Chicks in the Hood 2013
The common thread between them all was the affection owners had for their birds.The chickens had names and their owners talked eagerly about personality differences and quirks. All the chickens we saw were used for eggs, rather than meat, and even older birds which were no longer star layers, were allowed to roam around in peace.

This event has a lot to offer for varied audiences. It satisfies the curiosity of those who are totally unfamiliar with keeping urban chickens (and it doubles as a stellar garden tour!), or it can provide some practical options and answers for those looking to start their own backyard flock. For me, this event was an education in the practice of keeping backyard chickens in the city; you don't need a massive yard and you don't need fancy, ultra-expensive equipment. Seeing the chicks in person, raised by my Pittsburgh neighbors, made owning birds in the future seem not only highly rewarding but also more feasible than I'd thought.

Sorry you missed out? This year's tour benefited Just Harvest, so if you want to make a belated donation to us (always welcome!) you can do so here. And if you want to learn more about urban chicken farming, you don't have to wait 'til next year's tour. If you're on Facebook check out the Chicks in the Hood page – their ongoing posts are full of fun facts and humorous pictures, and they would be happy to help get you started! Or you can contact the folks at P4 who organized the tour.

-- Emily Schmidlapp, Fresh Access Coordinator (Learn more about our Fresh Access program.)

Friday, June 21, 2013

House votes down farm bill!

Our voices were heard! Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted down a version of the Farm Bill that would have cut food stamps by $20 billion over the next ten years. The bill also would have included a whole set of new barriers to food stamp access, from work requirements on many recipients to blanket drug testing of applicants.

You joined us in calling on local U.S. Representatives to protect the food stamp program and it worked. The U.S. Senate had already approved $4 billion in cuts to SNAP/food stamps in its version of the five-year Farm Bill. The House of Representatives had been proposing cuts of $20 billion to food stamps, a critical line of defense against hunger for 1.8 million Pennsylvanians living in poverty. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called these proposed cuts "terrifying."

Yet some members of Congress still think the U.S. is spending too much on the food stamp program, and the House passed amendments to the Farm Bill that would have included a whole set of new barriers to food stamp access, from work requirements on many recipients to blanket drug testing of applicants.
  • Most Democrats, like Rep. Mike Doyle, voted against the Farm Bill and these amendments.
  • They were joined by 62 Republicans, including Rep. Keith Rothfus, who had voted for these amendments but then turned against the Farm Bill because it did not go far enough to restrict access to food stamps.
  • The remaining Republicans, including Rep. Tim Murphy, voted for the Farm Bill and these amendments.
Stay tuned for further action!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Waste, fraud, and abuse in the food stamp program? Halfway through the SNAP Challenge, Ken M goes searching for the truth - Part 2

In my post yesterday I kind of ripped the GOP a new one for their "proof" that cutting funding for food stamps will save the nation from evil and destruction. (Don't get me started again.) In all fairness, the Democratic-controlled Senate also passed $4 billion in cuts to SNAP in their version of the Farm Bill. Most of those cuts were to the heat and eat program. But at least President Obama has finally spoken out against the House's planned $20 billion in food stamp cuts.

Here's another report on fraud and abuse in the SNAP program by the nonpartisan government body charged with assessing how well government is spending your tax dollars.

What is striking about this report is the clear decline in food stamp abuse it charts. Down to 1%. Given how much mud is being slung at the SNAP/food stamp program, and government in general, I was expecting the opposite. It points to a downward economy as a primary reason for the increase in food stamp recipients and it mostly points the finger at government error and private sector business engaging in illegal practices as the reason for any remaining abuse in the system.

How could government error be part of the problem? I am not a rocket scientist but I have spent a number of years in the private sector. If orders start flying in you better bring in more staff and resources or you can't meet demand. It's that simple. Yet our current state government administration has taken the opposite position by cutting staff. In Allegheny County the number of cases per caseworker exceeds 1,000 – one person responsible for helping a thousand individuals. Or maybe it's 1,200. The exact number is hard to pin down because of a very complex matrix for determining caseloads. Because what you want when the job at hand is helping people is a very complex bureaucracy for them to wade through. (*more sarcasm*)

This isn't sitting right with me. I'm going to eat a fake cheese sandwich, with tomatoes.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Waste, fraud, and abuse in the food stamp program? Halfway through the SNAP Challenge, Ken M goes searching for the truth - Part 1

Last night I did a stir fry and cooked all of my chicken. I was on the go today and had to forfeit my usual eating-out habits. My colleague seems to be faring worse. She was suffering from a headache and searching for aspirins when I saw her. In fact, she looked like she was tied to the back of a PAT bus and dragged here. I exaggerate. She did have a headache and looked a little worn.

Outside the office I bump into the usual locals. I start bragging about the challenge, being on only $6 dollars a day for food. "I couldn't live off that" they squeak. As usual, the conversation quickly moves to everyone's opinion on people cheating the food stamp system. I really can't trust common perception because I know if I used an EBT card during my shopping trip and people saw me stuffing my sack to the point I could hardly lift it, this might create a certain misperception about the amount of food you can get on food stamps. But this is all superficial. I need some data on the big picture, some facts on how such supposedly massive abuse of the SNAP benefits program can occur.

I consulted a report issued by the GOP: Reeling in Government Waste, Fraud, and Abuse—Replacing Dangerous Defense Cuts with Common Sense Spending Reductions.

Read it. Without realizing they're doing so, this GOP report (the seeming talking points bible for all current anti-SNAP talk) actually points the finger at the private sector marketplace - businesses that profit in trafficking EBT transactions. All food stamp funds are loaded onto an EBT card and can only be used for food purchases. Unless a merchant is fudging the transactions in the back office, the consumer is unable to use their card on anything but food. It's not news that the private sector can go astray, especially when it comes to tapping the public till. Look what happened in the housing, mortgage, banking, credit, and finance industries.

If this waste, fraud, and abuse is the widespread problem they allege, what's needed, then, is more government oversight, not cuts in funding to help hungry people get food on the table. And really - you mean to tell me there's no waste, fraud, and abuse among defense contractors taking government funds? Maybe related to, oh I don't know, their procurement process, salary compensation, or tax filing - to the tune of billions of dollars?! Yet you don't see the GOP tripping over themselves to cut defense spending.

The GOP report also points the finger at a lottery winner and two criminals in Detroit. Yes, these three individuals were egregiously defrauding the SNAP program. And because of that they were caught. But yes, because these three shysters tried to scam food stamps we should drastically cut food stamp funding for the millions of people who really need it. (*sarcasm*)

The GOP anti-food stamp talking points also cast a scornful eye on the "heat and eat" initiative. This was a technical fix designed to help states expand food stamp eligibility to those who weren't qualifying for sufficient benefits because they couldn't demonstrate they had utility payments (because their utilities were included in their rent). Ironically, "heat and eat" works exactly as the GOP describes it; they just view making sure people get the food stamps they're entitled to as "fraud."

The same goes for their attacks on "categorical eligibilty," which allows states to eliminate federal asset tests and raise the income threshold for SNAP i.e. removes barriers that keep people who need it from getting food stamps. Cat el also, by drawing on info from other government programs that help low-income families, reduces paperwork and reduces government administration costs. Funny, I thought increasing government efficiency was something the GOP would be all for.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Spreadsheets, Buses, and Automobiles: Ken Tallies What it Takes for the SNAP Challenge

My Food Stamp Challenge prep continues. Sunday comes and I begin to prepare for my second journey. This time no sunglasses, I don't want any collateral damage. Once again I was blessed with fine weather. I did the walk, the Incline, and one bus that let me off 3 blocks from the two stores. I got my goods and returned home. It was uneventful, other than spending 5 bucks on transportation to pick up 4.79 in groceries I was feeling pretty good about my chances of making it. I managed to make it outside of my food desert and nail some healthy foods at reasonable prices.

Here are my prep stats:

What I bought:
Even with my excel spreadsheets and iPhone I had some miscalculations but ended up with $1.34 left over. I was pleased with my take. It did require some preparation. I used my high-speed internet connection to race around the world trying to find the correct balance of nutrition for the price. I even made a trip in my car to get an idea of prices. I know this might be cheating since most people don't price out their food and then come back a couple of days later to buy it but I am a follower of Captain Kirk's philosophy (you know what I mean)*.

For my first night, I had a British dinner: eggs, boiled potatoes, baked beans and slices of tomatoes. Very plain. Sorry Brits.

*For those who don't know Capt. Kirk's guiding philosophy, it is as follows:
Never get into a situation you can't win.

Editor's Note: We realize it is now the last scheduled day of the SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge and all of Ken's posts thus far are about preparing for the challenge rather than actually taking it. It seems figuring out how to make do with less is an undertaking in and of itself, requiring ample research and planning to mitigate the hardship.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ken Prepares for the SNAP Challenge - Part 2

After getting my groceries I'm standing there waiting for this bus. My back, my knee, my hip are all hurting. I live with chronic pain since the motorcycle accident and take great care not to end up back in the hospital. One wrong move with this sack of goods – my food for the week — could change my life forever.
Now more people are showing up at the bus stop. There's no way I can beat them to the bus to get a seat. I didn't bring my glasses so I can't even see what bus is coming.
It finally arrives and I get a seat. People are jumping on and off the bus with their two bags in hand, proper amount of content in each bag, looking at me like I'm some kind of a rookie. I'm just hoping all my stuff doesn't spill out on this dirty floor.
I get off at Carson and Smithfield to wait for my next bus. Taking the Incline and walking was out of the question. I'm not a religious man but I did take a moment here to kneel down and thank God it wasn't raining or snowing or 20° outside.
A minute seemed like an hour. But it finally came and I got a seat in the front leaving my sack of goods in the middle of the aisle for people to trip over. Then I realized: this bus is going to blow by my street leaving me two extra blocks from my home unless we catch a light and the driver has the mercy to let me off. As luck would have it we got a red light, I jumped up and made my request. "Please let me off."
Without comment the doors opened and I made my getaway. I carried the groceries the final block, neighbors staring at me as I inched my way home. Inside I went straight for the frig with the perishables, grabbed two aspirins for pain and laid down, wondering if I caused any damage to my back.
Then my eyes popped wide open. I have to make the trip again tomorrow, to get everything else on my list. See part 3.

Monday, June 10, 2013

SNAP Challenge 2013: Food Stamp Specialist Ken M. Prepares for 5 Days, 6 Dollars

It was a warm Saturday afternoon in June. I put on my iPhone earbuds, cranked up the music, and headed to the Incline. I was on a journey to buy 30 dollars worth of food that had to last me the entire work week. And according to the challenge rules, no other food allowed: nothing from the cupboard, no sneaking from the fridge at work, and no one buying me anything. Could I hack it for five days? People on food stamps do this for months.

Armed with a spreadsheet and pen I walked along Grandview Avenue dogging tourist questions and counting skyscrapers. The ride down the Mount was great - I paid 3.50 for the ride and two transfers.  I crossed the street to the bus stop and carefully eyed up my fellow travelers.  All seemed well.

I walked along Carson St. looking at the shops and people spending more money on lunch than I could for the whole week.  Inside the store, I pulled out my spreadsheet and iPhone calculator.  It could not have gone better: I was getting my items and saving .29 cents here and there.  I loaded up my cart and headed for checkout.

I took my items out of the cart and the cashier put them back in.  I wheeled my cart to the table and started to pack my bag. This stuff ain’t fitting in my bag.  I turned to the cashier for help.  He was already inpatient with me because I asked for my quarter back that was stuck in the cart.  I interrupted the line anyway.  “I need a bag...”  “There over on the shelf “ he said.  I went to the shelf and see the bags aren't free - the only one that would work costs $1.25.

I carefully packed the bag I brought.  It was so heavy I thought for sure the straps were going to break.  I carried the bag in one hand and two loaves of bread in the other.  I made it about a half a block and had to stop.  I made it another 30 feet and had to stop.  I quickly became entertainment for the people eating lunch outside.  I gave them the stink eye.

I made it to the first bus stop and that was it.  My stuff was falling out on the sidewalk.  People started to inch away from me.  I stepped on any ants that got too close to my food.

Then a thought crossed my mind: It's over 80 degrees out and the bus may be a long time coming. What if everything spoils?! I'd be ruined. No milk, chicken, or eggs for the rest of the week. I'd be living on carbs and canned goods and even less calories. I move the bag into the shade. See part 2.