Congressmen Go Hungry on Food Stamps (Updated)

This is a stunt. It isn’t even an original stunt. It has been done before periodically by other legislators. Still, it makes the point.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) stood before the refrigerated section of the Safeway on Capitol Hill yesterday and looked longingly at the eggs.

At $1.29 for a half-dozen, he couldn’t afford them.

Ryan and three other members of Congress have pledged to live for one week on $21 worth of food, the amount the average food stamp recipient receives in federal assistance. That’s $3 a day or $1 a meal. They started yesterday.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), co-chairmen of the House Hunger Caucus, called on lawmakers to take the “Food Stamp Challenge” to raise awareness of hunger and what they say are inadequate benefits for food stamp recipients. Only two others, Ryan and Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.), took them up on it.

“All of us in Congress live pretty good lives,” said McGovern, who ate a single banana for breakfast yesterday and was going through caffeine withdrawal by midday. “We don’t have to wake up worrying about the next meal. But there are a lot of Americans who do. I think it’s wrong. I think it’s immoral that in the U.S., the richest country in the world, people are hungry.”

A very good friend of mine knew, liked and campaigned for Jim McGovern while she was alive (he was running for State Rep then). She was an Irish redhead – a hard city broad, tough as nails and as skeptical as they come, and she thought he was a decent guy. I don’t doubt her. And I appreciate his willingness to try to drum up some media attention for the problem of hunger in this country as it has exploded during the Bush years.

Having said that, it shouldn’t really be necessary for him to have to prove that $1 a day isn’t enough to live on. Only movement conservative Republicans believe it is, and as we all know, proving something they don’t want to believe is a waste of energy. They’ll just shut their eyes, block their ears, and recite Grover Norquist at the top of their lungs like Monty Python’s Gumby Family – you know, the ones with the bandages on their heads – reciting “You’ve got beautiful legs!” in unison no matter what question they’re asked.

But the timing for this stunt isn’t random. There’s a reason for it. McGovern has introduced a bill to raise the amount of Federal money going to the Food Stamp program, replacing at least some of what was cut out of it in the 12 thin years of stingy Republican rule.

McGovern and Emerson have introduced legislation that would add $4 billion to the annual federal food stamp budget, which was $33 billion last year and covered 26 million Americans. The proposal could be incorporated by Congress into the new farm bill.

“We’re trying to get this debate going,” McGovern said. “There are more working people today getting food stamps than six years ago. . . . There’s not a member of Congress that doesn’t have hunger in their district.”

Which wasn’t true before the advent of that stingy Republican rule. In most states there used to be pockets of hunger mixed in with pockets of middle-class stability and smaller pockets of wealth, but so far has the Bush Administration and its puppet Pub Congress taken us on the road to a Third World-style tripolar economy – a heavy contingent of very rich at the top, a far more massive block of very poor at the bottom, and a skinny tier of the middle-class hanging on by its fingernails between them – that hunger is everywhere now. Even the richest districts in the country (Newton, for instance, here in Mass) have their food banks and homeless shelters.

$$$4Bil is a drop in the bucket. It won’t end hunger in America. The best it will do is help people be a little less hungry than they are now. But it’s a step in the right direction and we’ve waited a long time for that step to be taken.

So kudos to Jim and especially to the lone Republican to take the challenge and co-sponsor the legislation with him:

Jo-Ann Emerson from Missouri.

That moderate Pubs still exist after decades of extremist Pub attempts to wipe them out (the tag-team of Gingrich and DeLay damn near accomplished it) is a minor miracle for which we are all grateful. It’s the humane Pubs like Jo-Ann who, though they may be few and far between, offer some slim hope that the GOP may one day return to reason and rationality.

Update: Tim Ryan didn’t make it.

Last Friday night, in New Hampshire to deliver a commencement speech, Ryan succumbed to a pork chop in the hotel restaurant because he feared he would otherwise be too weak to give the address.

If he didn’t eat a pork chop he’d be too weak to talk? Like you might feel too weak to do actual work if you were on food stamps? Yah think?

Afterward, as he rushed to catch a flight back to Washington, airport security officials confiscated jars of peanut butter and jelly from his carry-on luggage, leaving him with nothing but a small bag of cornmeal to eat in the final days of the “Food Stamp Challenge,” which ends today.

“It just showed me that when you’re living on food stamps, you’re really one event away from disaster,” he said. “If you drop a jar of sauce or jam, you can lose an opportunity to eat. Some people are constantly living on that edge.”

*sigh* Light dawns on Marblehead, as we say in Mass.

I shouldn’t pick on him. His heart is clearly in the right place. The problem here is that this stunt was performed by people who didn’t need to do it to understand the impossibility of staying healthy on food stamps, while the people who really need to learn that lesson don’t have the guts to attempt it. Bush, for example.

Maybe they ought to round out the stunt with a challenge to our Boy Emperor.

As if.

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