By Julianne Malveaux
Steven and Laurie, a White married couple that lives near Richmond, Va., work at a big box store. She is a cashier; he works in the storeroom. Each earns about $9 an hour but neither works 40 hours a week. Indeed, they are lucky to pull 40 hours a week combined. Sometimes weeks they are fortunate enough to pull 45 hours a week between them. Some weeks their combined hours are just 30.
I met Steven and Laurie (not their real names) on a telephone press conference in April. They said they had three children and also mentioned that they were White because “everybody thinks only Black people get these benefits.”
Steven and Laurie were troopers. They talked about buying clothes at thrift shops, searching for food bargains and planning menus around coupons, and managing to occasionally eke out a few pennies to buy occasional new things for their children. They didn’t complain, but spoke matter-of-factly about their financial situation. They also spoke of looking for new jobs, but finding little available in their community.
Because they don’t work enough hours, neither Steven nor Laurie qualified for health insurance. Their combined incomes are so low – between about $16,000 and $21,000 – that they are officially poor (the poverty line for a family of five is $27,540). They qualify for food stamps, (called SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and they consider them the blessing that helps them make ends meet.
Sometime this month, though, Congress will come up from the Syria conversation to, perhaps, cut allocations for SNAP. The cut of $40 billion would deny between 4 and 6 million people food stamps. The new legislation would also allow states to require SNAP recipients to work. Some of the 12 million unemployed may not qualify for SNAP assistance, nor will childless adults who do not have work. Some restrictions may also limit SNAP assistance to three months every three years. While some states have waived SNAP requirements because of their high unemployment rates, federal legislation may prevent such waivers.
The proposed cuts in SNAP is twice those proposed in May. These cuts are being driven by Republicans who, in their budget cutting frenzy, have been indifference to poverty. After all, the “p” word is used to infrequently in political debate, that one might think that poverty has magically gone away. Or, perhaps our legislators just don’t care.
The people who receive SNAP assistance don’t conform to any stereotypes. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, about 20 percent of those receiving SNAP have college degrees. Half of the recipients are White. A third of the women who get help from SNAP are older than 40. Fifty thousand of those who receive SNAP assistance are veterans.
So many families are food insecure because of the employment situation. The unemployment rate dropped just a tick in August, slipping from 7.4 to 7.3 percent. Still, there are 11.3 million unemployed people. More than 4.3 million people have been unemployed for more than half a year. These folks, still looking for work after more than 27 weeks, would be no longer eligible for SNAP assistance.
The unemployment rates, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, clearly understate unemployment. When we count people who work part-time but want full time work, those who are marginally attached to the labor force, the overall unemployment rate rises from 7.3 percent to 14.6 percent.
The Black unemployment, reported at 13 percent, soars to 26 percent, a depression level of unemployment. It is undeniable that the unemployment rate is improving, with overall unemployment dropping from 8.1 percent a year ago to 7.3 percent today. But the downward pace has been glacial, with the level of job creation (169,000) too slow to keep up with job loss. Millions will remain unemployed for the next six months or so.
Against this backdrop Congress has the temerity to propose legislation that will deny millions of families SNAP benefits. Their indifference to joblessness and poverty is amazing. They’ve not exhibited similar indifference for those at the top, maintaining tax breaks for them.
Steve and Laurie struggle to make ends meet. They are good, hardworking, and people just like millions of others. They work part time for economic reasons, preferring full time work. They need food stamps, and it is not clear, under proposed legislation, whether they will qualify for them. I worry about Steve and Laurie, and I also worry about the 11.3 million unemployed people, the 4.3 million who have not worked in half a year, and the 2 to 4 million families who will not qualify for SNAP. Worry is not enough, though. This is yet another reason why a people’s uprising is necessary. The uprising must transcend race lines – it ought to reflect Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign. Congress won’t change its indifference to the poor unless somebody makes them.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.