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For the working poor, food assistance programs are a necessity

Rumbling Bellies



I'm trying very hard to keep an open mind about the changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. SNAP. I understand that some able-bodied folks — usually assumed to be black and driving a Lexus — are getting food stamps and not working. I understand that the new regulations will impact an estimated 60,000 people in our state, but not those with children. What I'm wondering about is this: Will these estimated 60,000 people now be able to roll up to any top-tier company where they couldn't get a job before and get a job now? I have a strong hunch the answer is a big fat no.

What I think will happen is that a large majority of these folks will get a low-paying job, or maybe two, possibly three, and they still won't have enough money to put food on the table.

I'm not saying folks shouldn't work. They should, just as the bulk of us do. My challenge is that many able-bodied folks are working, and they still can't put food on the table. This is the group you won't hear about. No one talks about the working poor, but I'll tell their story because I see it daily at Midland Park Community Ministries, a food pantry where I serve as director.

I can tell you confidently that just about everyone receiving food assistance at Midland Park has a unique set of circumstances that led them to apply, whether it's job loss, divorce, domestic violence, incarceration, getting old. It's rarely cookie cutter, and I've yet to meet anyone who woke up and decided, out of the blue, to apply for food assistance just because. For many of the working poor, the process of applying is traumatic.

I remember a young, white couple with a few kids who were managing to keep their heads above water until the dad lost a few days of work; he was in construction and heavy rains shut the job site down. By the time he went back, the bill at their motel was two weeks behind. When dad resumed work, that bill had to be paid first, which meant no money for food. The family found our food pantry, and we met their emergency need, but the instability of dad's job required more. In this case SNAP ensured that there wouldn't be a gap in getting food.

A few years ago we dealt with a young African-American woman with five kids. Before you snort cynically, she was working and holding her family together. They bounced from hotel to hotel for more than a year, but she kept a job; granted, it wasn't enough to get her to the next level of economic stability, but she was determined that her kids would see her working. And they did until her car broke down. Since she couldn't drive long distances any longer, she found a job within walking distance. We supplemented her food budget, but she couldn't feed her kids without SNAP. We tried for months and months to find her a job that would cover rent, food, utilities insurance, etc. She had some education and was computer literate, but those factors didn't open any doors. About a year later, she got a job at a local grocery store and began working her way up. Her family has housing now, and when we spoke last, she was working on saving more, but she still needed food assistance.

I won't forget the young white veteran who came to our doors one morning fresh off of a tour of duty in Afghanistan. That young man sat in my office and cried because, just a few days earlier, he had gone into a local Walmart, ate a cooked chicken as he walked the aisle, and left without paying for it because he was broke and hungry. We met his emergency needs and talked about applying for food stamps, but he was adamantly against it.

If there is one lesson you need to take away from this column, it is this: The majority of folks who knock on our doors aren't binge watching TV all day long. They are looking for work. They are working. They are heading to a second job. They are taking care of elderly parents. They are holding their families together and planning for a better future. Sometimes they are completely homeless.

As for those top-tier positions, I don't know who gets those, but it's not the working poor. And if they aren't getting them, how can anyone possibly believe that people not working now will suddenly become the most attractive candidates? It doesn't add up.

In many cases, folks who aren't working can find something to bring in a few dollars, but those low-paying opportunities won't put food on the table, which directly impacts stability. Welcome to the ranks of working poor and hungry. If you don't believe what I've said, come and visit Midland Park — we've got stories.

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