I want to tell you about one of my aunts.
Aunt Bea worked for almost 50 years as a psychiatric nurse and then a supervisor in her department. She was forced to retire at 70 even though she was fit and motivated to keep doing the job she invested her career in. Other people wanted her title and salary — maybe not her hours, which often ran to 60 or 70 hours a week — which while modest still put her in the upper tier of the middle class, income-wise.
When I visited her last year, I opened her refrigerator to make her a snack and saw that she had almost no food. I was surprised and said, “Aunt Bea, let’s go shopping you are low on everything”. She smiled slowly and said, “That’s OK, as soon as the first of the month comes, I will be able to stock up again”. It was the 23rd. I was shocked. Through delicate questioning, I found out that Aunt Bea receives both social security and a decent pension. She has Medicare. Her rent is moderate and she owns her car. What I learned was that she has to spend more than half of the money she gets for medications and other health-related care (she had breast cancer, an ulcer, high blood pressure and migraine headaches. She is just slightly overweight, never smoked and only drank a rare glass of wine over her lifetime. She tries to take care of herself). Her husband, my Uncle Tim has already passed away.
This is the profile of one person who is food insecure in this country. My Aunt would not qualify for food stamps, but even if she could, pride would prevent her from applying for them, they have been so vilified and stigmatized. She has had to live with hunger for one week out of every month. That means 91 days of every year, unless someone takes her out for a meal or her church has a fellowship event, Aunt Bea has nothing to eat. She drinks tea on those days and only in the middle of the day, to make that last. Aunt Bea was once a Democrat, but has voted Republican since the Reagan election.
I read this article in the New York Times and thought about Aunt Bea. Then I thought about Mr. Cantor who wants to cut $40B dollars from the Food Stamp Program. Does it seem right that 49 million people in America don’t have enough to eat every day? Food stamps provide about $1.50 per meal. I tried to find pricing on menus for most of the fast food chains I know. Almost all ‘meals’ at these places are priced around $3.00 per. I will admit, there are parts of the country where you can get a plain McDonald’s burger for about $1.00 and a Taco Bell Burrito for about the same. These are probably tasty, arguably not particularly nutritious and are loaded with fats, salt and sometimes even sugar. I wouldn’t want to eat them three times a day, every day.
Food Stamps are meant to be an emergency response program to put a nutritional floor under people in economic downturns. While Wall Street is thriving, Main Street is not. What’s worse, wages for the average person have stagflated for fifty years.
Most of the people on Food Stamps are children, the elderly and the disabled. What used to be bipartisan agreement that giving them money to purchase food would not only help them to bridge the gap and get proper nutrition — the humane, responsible, and moral thing to do — but also subsidize farmers and put money into the economy. It was always agreed that decency dictated carving out a portion of the budget to help people who are faced with having to choose between paying for rent, for medications or for food. Many are parents who go without meals so their children can eat. And we know hungry children don’t do well in school and fall behind their luckier classmates. These policies sentence them to a lifetime of poverty from which many never recover.
The growing obsession with austerity and budget cuts seems to have broken America’s moral compass. To make matters worse, the Wall Street boom has led to inflationary food prices, putting more and more products completely out of reach of the average American.
Maura Daly of Feeding America says that the average income for a family of four among the people she assists is $25K, and half of them earn far below that – these are people who are working hard, not sitting on the couch. In 2012 the top 10% of US households controlled 50% of the nation’s total wealth. This is in part the result of decades of severe budget and tax cuts.
I heard John Boehner suggest that people should just eat a $1.00 can of beans every day so they can get by without federal food assistance.
I think anyone who recommends that, should try it. I’m a skinny vegan and I couldn’t do it.
My Aunt Bea is not a welfare queen. She and my Uncle worked hard their whole lives. They owned their home but when Uncle Tim developed Alzheimer’s, they sold it to help pay for the special care he needed at the end of his life. She couldn’t afford to keep up the property taxes, anyway. She has taken only one vacation since retiring, to see relatives in Canada, is careful about paying bills and not wasting her money. She has always been frugal. Her own illnesses absorb a disproportionate amount of money and now she is hungry every month, can never afford another car if hers breaks down. She cannot even afford the repairs. She could move to a less expensive part of the country but then would be far from the support system of caring family and friends that provide social interaction and something to look forward to every day, so she doesn’t succumb to despair.
Something is amiss when this even happens to someone like my Aunt.
September is Hunger Action Month. We can help.
And now that we will likely avoid wasting money bombing Syria back to the Stone Age, can’t we at least prevail on our Congress to leave SNAP alone?
September 19th update: http://www.nytimes.com/?emc=edit_na_20130919 – Nice people, no?
Images: NYT, Feeding America, Miami Herald