Living in the Possibility

I am feeling very encouraged. We recently completed our most successful Hunger Walk/Run, with more than 17,000 participants and a cadre of volunteers and sponsors in attendance. The event was an affirmation of everything we believe in and work for at the Food Bank.  The diversity of faith, business, public, civic and community groups reflected a rainbow of humanity with common values and commitment to make things better for our neighbors in need.  

And we’re making tremendous strides in our core work. We’ve increased food distribution by more than 100% over the past four years, and increased the nutritional value, with fresh produce now our largest category of food. Our donor base is growing, our network of partner agencies is becoming stronger, and we have the constant support of more than 1,500 volunteers each month. All of this gives me confidence that we can continue to offer great value and hope for those we serve.  

But we don’t operate in a vacuum. There have been recent discouragements as well. A $5 billion federal cut to SNAP (food stamps) in November was followed by an additional $8 billion in cuts in February. Here in Georgia, we learned of problems at the Department of Human Resources (DHS). More than $20 million in benefits were not being delivered to eligible recipients, and some benefits were being distributed to people who weren’t eligible.  This was not a result of fraud, but of case worker lay-offs, poor administration, and a new automated system that was underfunded and understaffed.

This series of events has had a serious impact on people already struggling to get by.

Then a new hurdle was raised when Rep. Greg Morris from South Georgia proposed HB 772 – legislation which subsequently passed – to give drug tests to people applying for food stamps or cash aid if the case worker suspects drug abuse. Not because Morris thought recipients were using more drugs than the general population – incidentally, they don’t – but because, in his words, “too many people were applying for help.”

Never mind that this legislation has been found illegal in other states (Fourth Amendment) or that Georgia will have to spend hundreds of thousands of tax dollars defending an unconstitutional law. According to Morris, it sends a message.  The same message I presume that U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan communicated recently when he said helping the poor causes them to be dependent, and the best way to help them is not to help. This is certainly an interesting stance, when at the same time, education and training dollars have been dramatically cut; we’ve experienced the worst recession in our lifetime; and the long term unemployed and underemployed are at record levels.

“We can’t legislate by speculation,’’ Rep. Morris said. “We have to do what we believe is right.”  And then the Legislature legislated on the speculation that by making it more difficult to apply, maybe less people would get help.

In the eyes of Rep. Morris you’re guilty if you’re poor, and you have to prove your innocence. Never mind that the same system to whom one would have to prove one’s innocence is under a Federal order for poor performance. Or that the legislation gave no guidelines to case workers on who should be tested, and no money for training. It is now the law, as the Governor signed it on April 29.  

But what is right, and for whom?

Maybe this is just a sloppy way to “starve the beast” – a way to cut government by making it more dysfunctional (a self-fulfilling prophecy) or beginning those cuts with the poorest and most vulnerable among us. (This theory began in the early 1980s, but ironically the government has grown under every administration since then.) Maybe this is just our anger at those who we feel are not pulling their weight, even though more than half of those receiving benefits work every day at low wages and more than half are children.

I think there is something deeper going on – deeper than pitting good Americans (the rich and accomplished) against bad Americans (those who have not fared as well).  There is something deeper going on that is difficult to talk about and almost impossible to address in a mean spirited environment looking for someone to blame. There is something deeper that is driving our rhetoric, our "gotcha" journalism, and our dysfunctional policy making.

Both Rep. Morris and Congressman Ryan are good people. They share personal narratives that are full of stories of strong family values, how they worked hard in their childhood, how they pulled themselves up by their “own” boot straps, how they loved their country enough to serve it, and how faith had informed their life decisions. The stories are full of pride and certainty that we just need to be more accountable and more like them. They think Americans are spoiled (poor Americans in their narrative) and we must toughen up to be competitive.  

As I think about their stories and the values they express, I see a reflection of my values. I too grew up in a hard-working family; I too worked for my father and grandfather after school and all day on Saturday (which was hard when my friends were sleeping in after our Friday night game).  I too voluntarily served in the Armed Services (two of those four years in Southeast Asia and Vietnam); I too was the first in my family to go to college; I too essentially paid my own tuition and have been independent since I was 17 years old. I too am a fiscal conservative, but unlike them, I come to a very different conclusion about how we should treat the poor and disempowered. And here lies a fundamental conflict with how to collectively decide a path forward.

My experience does not motivate me to blame the poor for their situation, to feel like everyone should act and think like me, or to give so much energy to the fear that someone is getting something they don’t deserve.  Certainly there are outliers, but we don’t typically cut programs because of the few.  In that case, we would have dramatically cut the defense budget and clamped down on Wall Street.

How did we arrive at such different conclusions? Maybe we need to reframe our work and rethink our approach to finding common solutions.  

What if we all answered the question “Under what circumstances would we support ending hunger in America?” and began the conversation there?

What if we were able to create a “safe place,”a table that invites everyone into the conversation – to  move from our “positions” to a conversation of common values and possibilities?  

What if we thought of feeding the hungry as a wellness initiative?  All studies show that well fed children learn better (enabling them to be more productive workers one day) and have better health outcomes (saving us money on health care).

It’s a long journey back to the possible, but it’s the only road leading us to a prosperous shared future.

The table is set at the Food Bank – we invite you to come and explore the possibilities.

-Bill Bolling, Executive Director

This letter originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Foodsharing. To learn more about Foodsharing, visit our Newsletters page.