In Defense of Food Stamp Programs

When Congress recently threatened to cut support for food stamp programs, the Food Research and Action Center responded.

FRAC prepared a 117-page document, “Editorials, Columns, and Op-Ed Pieces in Opposition to Food Stamp Program Cuts,” which compiles nearly 80 articles from dozens of newspapers across the country.

The clippings treat a variety of issues, ranging from support for low-income people to Congress’ apparent disconnect from the needs of “average citizens.” Many, if not most, articulate sentiments like the following, from the Port Huron (Michigan) Times Herald:

Any budget, especially a national one, is a statement about priorities. How we spend money demonstrates what we really believe. The Congress of the United States needs to be reminded by people of good will that contempt for the poor and the neglect of those in need is not an American value.

In September 2005, FRAC published a report titled “Food Stamp Access in Urban America: A City-by-City Snapshot.” According to the report,

A recent USDA study shows that the costs to families to purchase enough food generally were higher in the cities than in their immediate surroundings or in non-metropolitan areas of the same state …

In a majority of the cities, at least one child in four lived below the poverty line in 2003, and in Atlanta and Detroit it was two children in five …

As of May 2005 in the 25 urban areas [examined by the study], approximately 5.4 million people were receiving food stamps. More than half of the households receiving food stamps contained children, and nearly 80 percent of the benefits issued were paid to households with one or more children. One in five urban food stamp households included an elderly person …

And in contrast to Congress’ proposal to cut benefits, FRAC argues that

[s]ince the nation’s big cities are home to a disproportionate share of poor and hungry Americans, expanding access to the Food Stamp Program in cities is a critically important step toward building an America free of hunger.

Congress Gets Pay Raise; Minimum Wage Unchanged

Members of Congress recently passed a pay increase for themselves to the tune of $3,100. Approved by President Bush and effective January 1, 2006, their base salary will be $165,200.

Congress’ annual pay bump stands in stark contrast to the federal minimum wage, which has not been raised for eight years … since September 1, 1997.

In its report Out of Reach 2005, the National Low Income Housing Coalition offers the following perspective:

In no rural county or metropolitan area can a renter with a full-time job paying the prevailing minimum wage afford even a one-bedroom unit priced at the Fair Market Rent. And in only 42 counties—representing less than 1% of renter households nationwide—does a full-time minimum wage job constitute sufficient income to afford an efficiency or studio (i.e. zero bedroom) unit.

A parent would have to work at least three minimum-wage jobs to afford a two-bedroom apartment in California, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and Washington D.C.—nearly four jobs in Hawaii and Maryland.

The Economic Policy Institute provides comprehensive data on the minimum wage, including some concise Facts at a Glance and answers to FAQs.

Q: Who are minimum wage workers?

A: An estimated 7.3 million workers (5.8% of the workforce) would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage to $7.25 by June 2007. Of these workers, 72.1% are adults and 60.6% are women. Close to half (43.9%) work full time and another third (34.5%) work between 20 and 34 hours per week. More than one-third (35%) of the workers who would benefit from an increase to $7.25 are parents of children under age 18, including 760,000 single mothers. The average minimum wage worker brings home about half of his or her family’s weekly earnings.

And what of the earnings of our Senators and Representatives? According to the nonprofit publication Too Much,

No one can say precisely how many millionaires currently sit in Congress, or how many millions these millionaires hold, mainly because the annual disclosure forms members of Congress must file don’t require them to report the exact value of their assets. Instead, the forms ask lawmakers to list each of their assets within a set of fixed value ranges.

If you would like to study financial disclosure statements for members of Congress, visit PoliticalMoneyLine’s Candidate Profile Search.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Type in all or a portion of a last name.
  2. Choose the most recent election cycle.
  3. Click Go Search!
  4. Click on the appropriate name to open a profile.
  5. In the lower right-hand side of the screen, look for the box titled “Annual Personal Financial Disclosure Documents”
  6. Click on the report of your choice (available as a PDF document).

When you’re through, why don’t you contact your reps in Washington? Ask them to raise the minimum wage to help working families.

Focus: A Poverty Research Publication

The Institute for Research on Poverty publishes the quarterly journal Focus, which “provide[s] coverage of poverty-related research, events, and issues, … to acquaint a large audience with the work of the [IRP] by means of short essays.”

Full-text articles are accessible without charge and include titles like the following:

Racial Stigma and Its Consequences

Economic Inequality and Educational Attainment Across a Generation

Single-Parent Families and the Food Safety Net

Focus was previously featured in Kathleen McCook’s blog, A Librarian at Every Table.

Teaching Resource: kNOw Hunger

Brandeis University’s Center on Hunger and Poverty challenges students to help fight hunger in their community. With the Gerda & Kurt Klein Foundation, the Center created kNOw Hunger,

a ready-to-use, 6-unit social studies curriculum geared toward high school youth, and designed to enable educators to easily integrate social content materials into their classes. The curriculum meets the specifications of the National Council on Social Studies and is based on the most recent scientific research on hunger and poverty. The complete curriculum can be used online or downloaded free of charge!

The Web site provides resources for both teachers and students, printable materials in PDF format, and service learning guides for high school and middle school students.

An Atlas of Poverty in America

Penn State University’s Poverty in America Project studies poverty trends in the United States using census data, a unique index of “economic health” and “economic distress,” and public policy assessments.

Directed by Dr. Amy Glasmeier, the project has published An Atlas of Poverty in America: One Nation Pulling Apart, 1960-2003, available through Amazon.com.

A key message of this Atlas is that America’s poor are people who work or who are dependents of people who work and face limited opportunity, often due to living in places that are seriously disadvantaged because of geography or history or both …

We use the terms poverty, being poor, economic insecurity, low-wage work, working poor, and unable to make ends meet to reflect a state or condition of being in which … [people lack] the ability to enjoy life due to lack of access to basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, health care, and essential requirements for a successful work life such as a decent education and access to a vehicle.

Glasmeier and the Atlas were recently featured in National Public Radio’s “Hunger in America” series.

[NPR]: Why is there hunger in America?

[Glasmeier]: A big part of food insecurity relates to the uncertainties of daily life. People go hungry because of unexpected events, such as paying for an emergency visit to the hospital, a car repair, or the loss of a job. So you can be just above the poverty line, and any one of those circumstances can push you into poverty.

When a family is living that close to the edge, the bottom line is that cuts will be made in the consumption of food. Food is purchased with cash. If you don’t have a credit card, then you have to pay cash for food. The majority of people don’t have a monthly charge account at the local grocery store.

Poverty Action Lab

MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab conducts poverty research through the use of randomized trials.

The objective is to improve the effectiveness of poverty programs by providing policy makers with clear scientific results that help shape successful policies to combat poverty … [The Lab works] on issues as diverse as boosting girls’ attendance at school, improving the output of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, racial bias in employment in the US, and the role of women political leaders in India.

The Lab’s papers (available as PDFs) cover a wide range of topics. The archive includes “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?,” which made the national news when it was originally published in 2003.

The authors summarize the project in this way:

We perform a field experiment to measure racial discrimination in the labor market. We respond with fictitious resumes to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers. To manipulate perception of race, each resume is randomly assigned either a very African American sounding name or a very White sounding name. The results show significant discrimination against African-American names: White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews … We find little evidence that our results are driven by employers inferring something other than race, such as social class, from the names.

Storming Caesars Palace

Annelise Orleck, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, has published a book titled Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty.

It was a spring day on the Las Vegas strip in 1971 when Ruby Duncan, a former cotton picker turned hotel maid, the mother of seven, led a procession. Followed by an angry army of welfare mothers, they stormed the casino hotel Caesars Palace to protest Nevada’s decision to terminate their benefits. The demonstrations went on for weeks, garnering the protesters and their cause national attention. Las Vegas felt the pinch; tourism was cut by half. Ultimately, a federal judge ruled to reinstate benefits. It was a victory for welfare rights advocates across the country.

Duncan and others were part of a grassroots anti-poverty group called Operation Life. Former members recently enjoyed a reunion of sorts at UNLV to speak about their experiences during a book signing. According to Las Vegas CityLife,

Orleck says Operation Life and the work of the West Las Vegas black welfare mothers, many of whom had little to no formal education, “was a shining example” of how people could unite for a common goal. Operation Life brought the first health clinic, senior housing and library to the Westside …

Even though Operation Life is no more, its influence has left lasting effects in Nevada and elsewhere. The organization successfully lobbied for millions in federal money to bring food stamps to the state for the first time, as well as being one of the first certified Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food programs in the country. When welfare and other poverty services were on the chopping block, Duncan was one of a handful of women around the country who spoke before Congress in an effort to keep the programs going. In 1977, Operation Life was the only Title 7 nonprofit organization to get federal funding in the country, Orleck says in her book.

Storming Caesars Palace (6×9; hardcover; 400 pages) is available from Beacon Press for $29.95.

Street News Service

The North American Street Newspaper Association and Alternet.org have jointly launched the Street News Service.

SNS is a gateway to the best articles, essays and features written by and about homeless and low-income people. These articles are collected from the pages of street newspapers—enterprising publications produced by low-income communities in over 40 cities across North America. Street newspapers serve a vital role in these cities, giving homeless people meaningful work, educating citizens about poverty issues, and breaking important news stories.

The HHPTF was alerted to this new resource by “Street Librarian” Chris Dodge, a librarian and writer with Utne in Minneapolis.

For a primer on street newspapers, including reasons to carry them in your library, read Dodge’s “Words on the Street: Homeless People’s Newspapers.” It begins:

If, as journalist A. J. Liebling declared, freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, where can we find the real thoughts of people who can’t afford to produce their own publications? How exactly are they speaking out? Where do you go to read firsthand about the real issues affecting their lives, or how public libraries can help them or what resources they need from us? An answer, and one that librarians should acquaint themselves with, is street newspapers.

Implementing ALA's Poor People's Policy

Issued in 2000, this document originally appeared in Library Juice vol. 3, no. 10 (March 8, 2000) and later in Progressive Librarian no. 18 (Summer 2001) p. 74-76.

ALA/SRRT’s Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty Task Force is making the following

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ACTION IN IMPLEMENTING ALA’S “LIBRARY SERVICES FOR THE POOR” RESOLUTION (aka ALA’s “POOR PEOPLE’S POLICY”)

“The American Library Association promotes equal access to information for all persons, and recognizes the urgent need to respond to the increasing number of poor children, adults, and families in America.”
(ALA Policy 61, Library Services for the Poor)

Actions for Citizens

Challenge public policy that adversely affects low-income people such as welfare reform, cutting tax credits, reducing food stamps, eliminating benefits to immigrants, reducing health benefits, etc.

Join local advocacy groups that work to promote resources being made available to poor people.

Promote full, stable, and ongoing funding for existing legislative programs in support of low-income services and for pro-active library programs that reach beyond traditional service-sites to poor children, adults, and families.

Promote the implementation of an expanded federal low-income housing program, national health insurance, full-employment policy, living minimum wage and welfare payments, affordable day care, and programs likely to reduce, if not eliminate, poverty itself.

Actions for Library Professionals

Related to library services and policies

Examine your library’s mission statement. Who is supposed to be served? Are all people welcome? Are all people being served? What are the barriers to people using the library? What steps could be taken to eliminate these barriers?

Work to ensure people know how library policies are determined and are able to voice their concerns.

Evaluate library policies to ensure that the policies do not discriminate based on the ability to pay for access and/or service.

Promote the removal of all barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges.

Ensure the future success of all children by contributing to efforts that ensure children know how to read and are encouraged to read.

Work with local literacy providers to publicize availability of Adult Basic Education classes, GED, ESL, etc. to help adults improve their literacy skills.

Related to staff training

Promote training to sensitize library staff to issues affecting poor people and to attitudinal and other barriers that hinder poor people’s use of libraries.

Promote training opportunities for librarians, in order to teach effective techniques for generating public funding to upgrade library services to poor people.

Related to budgets and funding

Promote the incorporation of low-income programs and services into regular library budgets in all types of libraries, rather than the tendency to support these projects solely with “soft money” like private or federal grants.

Promote equity in funding adequate library services for poor people in terms of materials, facilities, and equipment.

Promote supplemental support for library resources for and about low-income populations by urging local, state, and federal governments and the private sector to provide adequate funding.

Related to outreach services

Ask local community organizations what issues they’re working on and how the library can contribute to their work.

Promote the determination of output measures through the encouragement of community needs assessments, giving special emphasis to assessing the needs of low-income people and involving both anti-poverty advocates and poor people themselves in such assessments.

Have a special area of reports, brochures, and newsletters of local organizations and agencies with addresses, contact names, and purpose of groups so that interested people can get involved.

Fund and support outreach services that address community needs such as literacy programs, read-aloud programs, etc.

Promote networking and cooperation between libraries and other agencies, organizations, and advocacy groups in order to develop programs and services that effectively reach poor people.

Build partnerships with organizations in your community that serve low-income families. Tell those organizations what you have, how the library works, and update them on new materials and services.

Promote among library staff the collection of food and clothing donations, volunteering personal time to anti-poverty activities, and contributing money to direct-aid organizations. Promote related efforts concerning minorities and women, since these groups are disproportionately represented among poor people.

Compile a database of local community organizations and make it part of your library’s Web pages and/or online catalog and make this information readily available to patrons who may need it.

Sponsor public events (such as forums, speakers, community discussions, presentations by local organizations) so people can understand issues affecting them—taxes, child care options, job gap, corporate welfare, crime, school services, etc.

Related to public awareness

Promote increased public awareness—through programs, displays, bibliographies, and publicity—of the importance of poverty-related library resources and services in all segments of society.

Promote direct representation of poor people and anti-poverty advocates through appointment to local boards and creation of local advisory committees on service to low-income people, such appointments to include library-paid transportation and stipends.

Collect, display, and make readily accessible current and up-to-date information on issues that are being debated such as the wage gap, lack of jobs, lack of child-care, welfare reform, etc.

Promote the publication, production, purchase, and ready accessibility of print and non-print materials that honestly address the issues of poverty and homelessness, that deal with poor people in a respectful way, and that are of practical use to low-income patrons.

Related to professional association activities

Read ALA’s “Poor People’s Policy” and think about how its recommendations may be implemented in the libraries where you work.

Distribute copies of ALA’s “Poor People’s Policy” to colleagues and initiate a discussion of the Poor People’s Policy at the libraries where you work and get your colleagues thinking about and discussing ways it can be implemented.

Ask ALA’s Washington Office to actively support legislative initiatives that would contribute to reducing, if not eliminating, poverty (e.g. living wage, more low-income housing, etc.).

Get involved in the ALA offices working on the issues of library services to the poor such as the Social Responsibilities Round Table Task Force on Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty, the OLOS Subcommittee on Library Services to the Poor and Homeless, or various other committees within ALA.

Document effective library services aimed at serving poor people and share information about these programs through ALA publications, conference sessions, electronic discussion lists, etc. as well as to groups outside ALA.

Encourage library science programs to offer courses on services to poor people.

Volunteer to develop and lead creative strategies within ALA and other professional associations that can bring visibility to the issue of libraries services for the poor.