The Constant Gardener: What Congress doesn’t get about poverty but the Pope does

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), U.S. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Pope Francis

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), U.S. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Pope Francis

On Tuesday, June 9th, a number of Just Harvest staff and more than 60 Pittsburgh-area food stamp recipients took a bus to Washington D.C. to urge our congressional representatives to protect the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the upcoming round of final Fiscal Year 2016 budget negotations. The food stamp program, a critical lifeline that helps 47 million Americans keep food on the table, is one of the nation’s vital safety net programs that are now slated for cuts by Congress.

We were all ignited by our anger over the disastrous outcomes these cuts would have in our region. We had all been up since 3am or earlier that morning in order to get to the chartered bus pick-up by 5am. We were eager to make our message heard in the halls of Congress.

Six hours later we caught sight of the iconic Capitol Building amid the impressive expanse of the magnificent stone Congressional buildings and pristine lawns. Our spirits rose.

We split into teams to tackle the meetings with the offices of the two U.S. Senators for Pennsylvania, Bob Casey (D) and Patrick Toomey (R), and U.S. Representatives Mike Doyle (D-14th District) and Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-12th District). Though several of his South Hills constituents were present, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-18th District) continues to refuse to meet with us.

Other teams were charged with delivering lobbying materials to the 190 senators and representatives who serve on the three key committees (Agriculture, Appropriations, and Budget) that would be weighing in on the federal budget in the next round of negotiations.

On our way to meet with legislators, a small group of us were standing in the corridor of a senate office building awaiting an elevator when a staffer from some unknown legislator’s office approached us, took in our Just Harvest t-shirts, and said, “I’m just curious–what is Just Harvest?” We explained that we were an anti-hunger organization from southwest Pennsylvania and were there to discuss planned Congressional cuts to the SNAP/food stamp program with Pennsylvania legislators.

What followed was one of the most shocking and infuriating exchanges between a government employee and a citizen we’ve ever had the misfortune to be a part of.

“So, you want SNAP cut, right?” This young, sharply-dressed woman undoubtedly had a college degree and, through her job, access to the levers of power and policymaking in the nation’s capitol. Yet it was her understanding that an anti-hunger organization would want the federal food stamps program cut.

One of our clients, Linda Davis, who is past retirement age and a widow, calmly corrected her, letting the woman know how important food stamps are to her and that she wouldn’t be able to make ends meet without them.

“But don’t you get Social Security?” the staffer asked her.

Linda was clearly amazed by the woman’s ignorance. The average monthly social security benefit is $1,294–hardly enough to live on. “Once I pay my utility bills, my social security check is gone!”

The staffer seemed interested in kindly educating Linda. “Don’t you have a yard? Why don’t you just grow a garden?”

We were all stunned.

Of course, in Pennsylvania, unless you have a greenhouse, one can only grow food in the warmer months. But even if our Northern state was the perfect climate for gardening year-round, people who rely on food stamps to get by are not likely to have the resources to garden.

And what of those living in poverty in warmer climes? Do residents of government-funded housing or low-income apartments have access to a plot of soil? Do the elderly and disabled have the ability to dig and tend those plants? Do families have the time or money to invest in gardening when they’re working multiple low-income jobs and barely paying the bills?

And if a person’s food stamps are cut and she can’t get food from a garden, what then would be this staffer’s solution to food insecurity? Her lack of exposure to and interest in what it means to live in poverty led her to a recommendation that had no basis in reality. She was no doubt proud of her pat prescription, to “plant your cake and eat it too.”

She might as well have said, “Why don’t you just go to a food bank?”

For that is no doubt the thinking of her boss and her mentors on the Hill,  and of the many Congressional legislators who are proposing cuts to food stamps and other safety net programs in next year’s budget.

How will those cuts affect the one in seven Americans who are struggling to get by? It’s not their problem. Let charity and private citizens pick up the tab of helping their neighbor, though such charities already report being stretched beyond their means.

For too many in Congress, the priority is boosting war spending and tax breaks for corporations and the uber-wealthy. If there’s not enough money left over to help those who can’t find a good-paying job, who have fallen on hard times due to illness or injury, or who are the victims of decades of generational poverty and community disinvestment? Not their problem.

But it is. It is a problem for this nation. A huge one.

The problem isn’t that a tiny portion of people in this country are enormously wealthy while the middle class shrinks and extreme poverty rises. Or that this wealth gap is already bigger than it’s ever been in this country and is continuing to grow.

The problem isn’t wealth itself, though it may be the wealth of our federal legislators, which likely leaves them less able to relate to the problems of the average American.

But the wealth of America’s ruling class is just a symptom. Their successful hording of a disproportionate amount of the nation’s riches results from their attitude about what the rest of us deserve.

A journalist chronicling the selfish reaction of the wealthy and “their apostles in government” to the water shortage in Southern California nailed their hypocritical begrudging of poor people’s supposed sense of entitlement.

The problem is the attitude of the wealthy, the contempt, the indifference, and the lack of anything resembling civic virtue. To be rich is no crime. To abuse privilege, to profit at the expense of others, is quite another thing – and it’s all too common these days.

These abuses, and the hunger, poverty and inequality they engender, are injustices that weaken our society and our strength as a country.

The Pope gets it. The formal proclamations of his encyclical this month lent new passion and eloquence to the religious leader’s calls for addressing economic injustices on a global level.

We should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. In practice, we continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights.

If those words and the idea of injustice doesn’t move you, perhaps some hard numbers on the bottom line will. Hunger has real costs for our region and our nation, with a price tag for Pennsylvania in the billions each year due to increased healthcare spending, increased costs to charities, lost productivity, and poor education outcomes that hurt not just the lifetime earnings of those who are hungry but society as a whole.

It’s time for a budget that appropriately funds the real war we must be waging: the war on poverty and hunger.

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