What man is there among you?

what-man-is-there-among-youThe self-portrait of a caregiver in one of my programs at the Center for Hunger Free Communities in Philadelphia hangs in my office. It is a portrait of pure humanity and the bareness of poverty. The woman painted herself naked inside of a barrel that is being ripped apart exposing her to the potentially harmful elements of the world around her. This gut wrenching portrayal of the shame that is cast upon the poor time and time again by some who belittle them and strip people of access to basic human needs is a reminder to me of why I cannot sit idly by and watch some lawmakers ignore the humanity of all. In the middle of this self-portrait, however, this woman pasted a simple message she ripped from her morning’s Bible reading: “What man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (quoted from the gospel of Matthew 7:9). Her scathing critique of anyone who would look at the bare flesh of her body and have no empathy stands as a powerful message to those in Congress today.

The women and men I encounter on a daily basis in my work speak truths about what it means to live in poverty and hunger. Their resilience in their desire to raise thriving children is often overlooked. Despite the wretchedness of poverty and the fact that 20% of American children experience it, policy makers continue to inflict more suffering onto people living in poverty by cutting federal programs and creating excessive or unrealistic hoops that families have to jump through in order to receive much needed assistance.

As Congress continues to wrangle over funding, families struggle with the harmful ripple effects of last month’s shutdown and, more immediately, the nationwide cut to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits that went into effect on November 1st.  Even in the face of this reduction, due to the premature end of funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the ‘stimulus package’) passed in 2009, the House of Representatives passed a bill to implement even deeper SNAP cuts for families beginning in 2014.  The House and Senate must now try to agree on a Farm Bill, which would include reauthorization of SNAP. However, lawmakers on all sides are suggesting cuts to SNAP, ignoring the substantial scientific evidence of SNAP’s importance for sustaining health and well-being from the womb to the golden older years.  Thinking of our families, the November 1st cuts are devastating on many levels.

For many years, the working parents we see in our clinics have been telling us that their wages are too low, so they need to rely on public assistance. Said differently, minimum wage equals the wage of the hungry.  According to the USDA, 85% of families that are food insecure have at least one working adult in the household.

Parents want the best for their kids, so even though they would prefer to be self-sufficient through work, they turn to SNAP because they know that when their children are hungry, it has disastrous effects on their health and their cognitive, social and emotional development.  Children’s HealthWatch data underscore what these parents already know – SNAP not only buffers children from hunger but also helps them to grow, to be healthy, to learn, and to develop to their full potential.

The caregivers I work with in Witnesses to Hunger and Children’s HealthWatch know the implications that Congressional action has on their lives.  But we often wonder if Congress understands it. When the women and men of Witnesses to Hunger visit Capitol Hill, bringing images and descriptions of their attempts to break the cycle of poverty, it is a moving, eye-opening experience. Additionally, thousands of people have watched A Place at the Table, a documentary profiling the lives of children facing hunger, and it has sparked much discussion on the issues surrounding poverty and hunger in our nation today. But, what would happen if Congress really saw the poor and empathized with their lives? Congress must stop playing politics and start fully funding programs that support the well-being of children and their families.

The self-portrait of the woman in the barrel questions our humanity. It is an illustration of the impacts that foolish cuts to federal programs such as SNAP and budget brinksmanship have on real lives. We can do better. It shouldn’t have to come to this: to questioning whether we are even connected as human beings.  The future of our children and our humanity depends on us doing better for one another.