Help or Hypocrisy?

By Bill Bolling, Executive Director
Appeared in Foodsharing
May —July, 2012

Let me begin by saying this has been a difficult article to write.  I most often use this space to tell an instructive story or share an aspect of a situation that puts things in perspective.  But I, like all of you reading this article, have days when I just shake my head and wonder – is this really what it’s come to? Today is one of those days, and I feel compelled to share my thoughts. 

Last month, I got a call from NPR’s Marketplace radio show.  They were coming to Atlanta and wanted our help with a national feature on how hard the recession has hit the middle class.  This is not a new story, but after several years of high unemployment, it is still very much a reality for so many people.

Georgia has been one of the hardest hit states in terms of job loss, so it wasn’t difficult to locate a family for Marketplace to feature.  (See our cover story on page 6.)  Steve and Suellen Daniels’ story is similar to those of countless others, but like every story, theirs has its own unique set of circumstances.  The Daniels haven’t had to apply for food stamps or receive assistance from a food pantry.  Thus far, they’ve somehow gotten by, working several part-time jobs between the two of them.  But there are hundreds of thousands of others in similar circumstances who have had to seek temporary assistance to help weather the storm.

Twenty percent of the people asking for help report that it’s the first time in their lives that they have ever asked.  That reality would be very difficult for most of us to imagine, much less deal with.  Approximately 40% of those seeking assistance report that someone in the household has a full or part-time job, but they are still unable to make ends meet.

Imagine that after working all your life, paying your bills, even volunteering and making charitable contributions, you lose your job, your home, your car, and even your health care.  Along with all of this comes the struggle to maintain your sense of confidence and dignity. 

Not the image that our state legislators must have had in mind during the last legislative session.

In the same month the Marketplace story ran, Georgia legislators took a great deal of time and commitment to pass two bills aimed at low-income families, including those hit hard by the recession.  HB 861 has recently been signed into law, even though it has been declared unconstitutional in other states.  It requires drug testing within 48 hours for anyone approved for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Applicants must arrange for the testing to take place at their own expense of $17 within 48 hours of their approval.  That might not seem like a lot of money to some people, but for those who are already struggling, it may as well be $100.  Childcare is not taken into account, and neither is transportation to and from testing sites.

SB 312 was passed by the Georgia Senate.  While this bill never made it to the floor of the House during the 2012 session, it could return in the next session.  SB 312 would require food stamp recipients to “earn their GED, pursue technical education, attend self-development classes or enroll in adult literacy classes” in order to receive their benefits.  

Providing people with opportunities and support to find work is a wonderful idea.  But making this a stipulation to get help feeding your family?  This would simply add one more burden to an already heavy load for most families. 

While the current version of the bill has exemptions for the disabled and those working 30 hours or more per week – among other exemptions – there are so many real-life situations it doesn’t take into consideration.  What about the person who has lost their job, and has even found part-time work, but the hours don’t add up to the required 30 hours?  Meanwhile, they’re spending every other waking hour looking for that full-time job, caring for their children and trying to put food on the table.  And now, on top of all that, the government is going to require them to participate in prescribed “personal growth” activities? 

I am all for accountability in government and in our personal lives.  In fact, those of us who have been involved in helping others have found that transformation most often comes out of mutual accountability. Being clean and sober, and involved in healthy, life-giving activities is only the beginning of what it takes to be successful in life.  It also takes the belief that others areon our side, that we are not alone in our situation. 

But government choosing one group (the poor and suffering) and saying, as one of the sponsoring legislators did, “we only want to help them” seems an odd way to help.  This “help” is being mandated from the same group of legislators who refused to pass meaningful ethics legislation, and who run against big government.  It strikes me as being hypocritical.

I’m not making this up – SB 312 proposes that the state would spend millions of tax dollars to insure the poor have “enriched” activities on top of their long suffering lives.  It’s estimated to cost $23 million just for a pilot program involving five Georgia counties.  Statewide enactment would cost $772 million

When problems are up close and personal, we often see them very differently.  When we face personal challenges, we often come up with different remedies for ourselves than we do for others.  If a stream is polluted in front of our house we will inevitably get personally involved in being sure someone cleans it up.  We might engage the EPA, the Department of Natural Resources, the City or County government.  But if a stream across town is polluted, we often think it’s not our problem and shouldn’t be the government’s business either.

None of us would tell a hungry child standing directly in front of us they should go without a meal, yet we allow one in four children across the state to do just that.  (27.9 percent of Georgia’s children live in food insecure households according to Feeding America’s Child Food Insecurity Study released last August.) 

None of us would want our own grown children to suffer the indignity of having the government regulate how they spend their time, and yet legislators seem to have no problem regulating people they don’t know and have never met.

How we treat the children and the least of these is one of the most critical moral issues of all time, and one that helps define a society.  How will we be defined?  Did we come together or turn on each other when times got tough?  

Making poor peoples’ lives harder and more miserable when they are already down is not a recipe for success, and I don’t think it is how we would choose to treat that individual hungry child standing before us looking for hope.  We certainly do need accountability, but we need it consistently and fairly distributed.

Wouldn’t it be better, more satisfying and meaningful to work for something different, something bigger and more aspirational, something that would take the involvement of all of us to be successful for our children and grandchildren and for all children and grandchildren to look forward to?  We could, if we chose, treat each other with a lot more dignity and respect.  Most of us are doing the best we can and are working in our own limited way to make things better.  All of us do better when we feel appreciated and supported. 

So, let’s invest in education, training, and other methods to help build a person’s sustainability for the long run, but not with the stipulation that these things are mandated in order for that person to receive food assistance.   Playing to our fears and legislating to the lowest view of ourselves will only delay the important work of rebuilding our country and ourselves.  We can do better and we must.  Our future depends on it.

Bill Bolling