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. Continue reading

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Response to Mr Blair 3

I haven’t read Assets and the Poor, though I’ll give serious consideration to ordering it the next time I get a spare 25 bucks, but there is an excerpt – the first 5 pages – at Amazon which at least gave me a flavor for what Sherraden’s after and where he’s coming from. First response? Not good.

Unfortunately, Amazon won’t let me copy any of the excerpt and as rotten a typist as I am, I’m not going to copy large chunks by hand – it’s only 5 pages and you can read it for yourself in under 5 mins. The main thrust of his thesis seems to be that anti-poverty strategies have been based on income tansfers and income transfers don’t work. (Reminder: this book was written in 1991 and is therefore 16 years old and outdated by at least 10.)

There is widespread discontent with the failure of income transfers, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Who, may I ask is discontented with it? And why? He doesn’t say though this is the opening and obviously the place to summarize that discontent. If he’s going to argue unhappiness, it would be nice to know where that unhappiness comes from and what its basis is. Especially since later on he admits income transfers have had a positive impact.

[I]ncome transfer has maintained…a minimum level of subsistence in the United States….In addition, welfare policy has buffered the severity of economic cycles by providing strong countercyclical fiscal stimuli.

IOW, it has done as much as conservative means-testing has allowed it to do and provided the minimum safety net which is all conservatives could stomach. Their intention was to hold welfare to the subsistence level and they succeeded in doing that. How, therefore, do we justify calling it a failure?

After decades of federal programs, it cannot be demonstrated that means-tested welfare policies permanently change people’s lives for the better.

Well, duh. Of course not. The policy was built to actively prevent “changing people’s lives for the better”. Conservatives, as I have demonstrated, wouldn’t stand for it. They didn’t even want the minimum subsistence aid, as they showed quite clearly when they came to power in ’94 and immediately began gutting as much of it as they could.

So already, right at the beginning, we’ve got problems. Continue reading

Response to Mr Blair 2

What you – and a lot of other people; you’re not alone – don’t seem to realize is that poverty is not a state of mind. It’s an economic condition that’s often forced on people.

[T]here are a lot of people…who think poverty is the result of stupidity or laziness, people who simply can’t believe that in America talent and intelligence could go unrewarded. Well…they do. Every day.

One of the smartest people I know is a cook at a nursing home. He had two years at a technical college where he learned how to be a tool-and-die maker because he liked to work with his hands. That craft has been taken over by computers, so now he cooks. He’s good at it, proud of what he can do and how people feel when they eat what he makes. He can do wonders with a budget slim as a Chihuahua hair. He makes $9/hr. His family wants to know why he doesn’t do more with his life. In a weak moment (when we’d been drinking), he told me that, and then he told me what he didn’t dare tell them–that he kept the job because he was happy doing it, and that money really wasn’t very important to him as long as his family had a roof over their heads and enough to eat.

He was lying, like a lot of us do, by telling himself that what he could get was all he wanted. I challenged him, and he admitted he’d really like to learn gourmet cooking and work in a legitimate restaurant where he didn’t have to make superior food out of inferior product. I asked him if he’d considered going back to school, get a degree in Culinary Arts. Sheepishly, he told me he’d applied but his income ($9/hr!) was over the guidelines and there was no financial aid available since the Feds had cut their grant programs to the bone.

The most brilliant guy I know is a Hungarian émigré. He was trained as a surgeon in Eastern Europe, has a raft of degrees on the wall of his tiny apartment, and speaks 4 languages, 3 of them reasonably well (English, he tells me, is tough). But the degrees aren’t recognized in America, he’s over 50, and his accent is so thick, his English so rudimentary, that a lot of prospective employers thought he was retarded. He works as a janitor. He makes $7/hr after three years; he started at $5. It was all he could get. His shame is so great that he won’t tell his family where he is or what he’s doing now.

If intelligence and talent were what counted in America, that janitor would be running a huge hospital and Bill Gates–who stole everything MicroSoft is from smarter people–would be sweeping the floors of the wards. But they aren’t.

It’s a rigged game, Mr Blair. Leaf through the categories Poverty and/or The Class War and/or War on the Poor on this blog and you will find dozens of posts written over the last few years documenting the tricks, lies, and outright cruelty practiced on the poor by conservatives, first because they believe poverty is the result of laziness, and second because it’s what their corporate supporters want.

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Response to Mr Blair 1

This is one of those posts that started out to be a comment on someone else’s blog until I decided that a) it was too long for a comment, and b) the issue has enough resonance to deserve wider exposure.

A brand-new blog (born March 17, barely a month ago) called Asset Almanac and authored by one Benjamin Blair linked to Monday’s post on infant mortality along with posts on several other blogs he’d never heard of that also featured pieces on the NYT article. Mr Blair’s point in this particular post, gently made, was that we were all having “knee-jerk responses” that aren’t “constructive” because they “impl[y] we ought to return to the good old days pre-welfare reform.”

Before I do answer him, however, I want to acquaint you with Mr Blair so we know who we’re dealing with and can put his remarks in some kind of context.

He describes himself as a “do-gooder…always working for fragile nonprofits” whose “passion” is for something called “asset development”. Asset development, it turns out, is a relatively new anti-poverty strategy built around, apparently, teaching poor people to save money.

The logic is very simple (important ideas are often simple): 401k account-holders save more when there’s a company match; perhaps poor people (few of whom have access to any 401k account, much less a matched one) would save more, and have a better chance of clawing their way out of poverty, if their difficult efforts to save for the future were also matched (…picture penguins marching through the polar winter — that metaphor may suggest the discipline and sacrifice necessary to save on an extremely low income). Michael Sherraden at the Center for Social Development at Washington University had that epiphany (well, not the goofy penguin part — I take full responsibility for that) and he wrote about it in his 1991 book, Assets for the Poor: A New American Welfare Policy. He argued that asset development, as opposed to (or in addition to) income support, is what can give poor people a chance at financial security and real self-sufficiency.

The beauty of the matched savings account is that the match can be used as not just an incentive to save but also a source of leverage about what to save for. Matched savings accounts, dubbed individual development accounts (IDAs), allow low-income people who complete a required financial education program to use their savings and the matching funds (which are often a generous two or three times the amount saved by the individual, up to a certain limit) to invest in a productive asset such as a first home, higher education, or the capitalization of a micro-business; in other words, the kind of investment that has been shown to move many people permanently up the economic ladder, and though certainly not risk-free investments (which we are being reminded of with the current subprime mortgage crisis), they have proven to be more practical and effective than most other investment options for the poor.

As regular readers have probably already guessed, warning flags starting going off all over the place, if not red then at least blazing orange. The idiotic concept that the poor are poor because they don’t manage their money well enough or save enough has been a right-wing talking-point for a generation, largely employed to frame the blame for poverty on the poor themselves and then sidetrack the discussion into a thoroughly useless cul-de-sac that neatly avoids the only real long-term solution whether we like it or not: income redistribution, an idea that drives our home-made oligarchs into fits of pique and panic.

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Welfare and Medicaid Cuts Raise Infant Mortality Rate

Conservatives kill babies.

Not with their own hands, of course. They don’t strangle them in their cribs. They let their anti-life policies do it for them.

For decades but especially for the last 12 years, the very same conservatives who scream that the removal of an unformed scut of cells in a womb is murder have been systematically depriving real life pregnant women who will be carrying to term of luxuries like food and adequate medical care because they’re “too expensive”.

At the Federal level, Medicaid and welfare have been consistently cut every year conservatives have ruled the roost in order to trim taxes to the nub for the rich, hand over $$$billions$$$ in corporate welfare to their masters campaign contributors, and prosecute a war nobody wanted on behalf of neoconservative imperialists too dumb to know enough to come in out of the rain. In primarily liberal Democratic states, some of that safety net has been replaced but in the predominantly-conservative Southern states, it hasn’t and the results are coming in. They’re not pretty, but then nothing much in conservative-run America is these days.

The policies of so-called “pro-life” conservatives are raising infant mortality rates in the South to the such a point that Third World countries have lower rates than parts of the US. Are we proud yet?

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Poverty and Educational Consultants

In one of its rare attempts to deal with the issue of poverty, the Washington Post takes note of an educational consultant named Ruby Payne who specializes in teaching teachers what to expect from poor kids in a classroom and how to deal with it when they get it.

The Texas-based author says in her book “A Framework for Understanding Poverty”: Parents in poverty typically discipline children by beating or verbally chastising them; poor mothers may turn to sex for money and favors; poor students laugh when they get in trouble at school; and low-income parents tend to “beat around the bush” during parent-teacher conferences, instead of getting to the point.

In the past several years, at least five school systems in the Washington area have turned to Payne’s lessons, books and workshops.

At first glance this may look like the kind of stereotypical folderol that’s been spit out for years – decades – by educational “consultants” who cut their teeth on conservative propaganda from the Heritage Foundation and glean most of their “information” from HF “poverty studies” so skewed they have no value outside a right-winger’s head. And that’s the way it’s being taken by her critics.

But many academics say her works are riddled with unverifiable assertions. At the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in Chicago last week, professors from the University of Texas at Austin delivered a report on Payne that argued that more than 600 of her descriptions of poverty in “Framework” cannot be proved true.”

She claims there is a single culture of poverty that people live in. It’s an idea that’s been discredited since at least the 1960s,” said report co-author Randy Bomer.

Absolutely true, and it makes Payne dangerous in the same sense that all stereotyping is dangerous.

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Murdering the Homeless: Teens Obey Conservative Message

For 30 years, conservatives have been advocating Class Warfare, pitting one group against another for political advantage – whites against minorities, the poor against the middle-class, and the rich against everybody who isn’t. They have fueled their divisiveness with violent, eliminationist rhetoric and a relentless “blame the victim” ideology aimed at promoting guilt-free greed and self-supporting selfishness. They have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

The AP is reporting that five teenagers in Orlando, Florida, killed a homeless man for kicks.

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