The final report of the 1996 World Food Summit states that food security “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees – at least in theory.
The Personal Is Political
In 1998, I was hired to interview women on welfare to find out how they were making ends meet after Bill Clinton signed the 1996 “Welfare Reform Act.” The act essentially gutted safety nets and imposed sanctions on women who did not comply with the welfare to work mandate. The mandate ultimately befitted corporations, not poor people.
This is the story of one of those women. Pat* was on welfare when the law changed. On the week that she was supposed to start the mandated classes at the Department of Human Services, she called her caseworker to see if she could reschedule the start date. She wanted to be with her mother who was dying in the hospital. The DHS worker denied her request and told her that if she did not show up, she would lose half of her welfare benefits per the new law, including food stamps.
Pat chose to be with her mother instead and lost half of her food stamps and cash benefits as a result, even though they weren’t much to begin with. Her mother died. Pat fell into a terrible depression.
Then, Pat’s teenage daughter started acting out. (When children experience loss, grief, hunger, poverty and/or discrimination, many do “act out.”) One day, Pat’s daughter was angry that Pat would not let her go to a party and called Child Protective Services in retaliation. This eventually resulted in Pat’s daughter being removed from her house as CPS deemed there was indeed not enough food.
In short, the state sanctioned Pat for having the “right” human ethics –wanting to be with her mother when she was dying and for drawing a necessary boundary with her teenager.
Why Are People Punished for Being Poor?
I am well aware how non-poor people in the United States are generally socialized to view this scenario. It is difficult for people who have not had to deal with the state’s punitive measures, food scarcity, and poverty to understand that this is not an out-of-the-norm practice.
Also, mainstream folks often are socialized to blame the individual in poverty. However, looking for loopholes to justify the state’s actions is unacceptable. We must ask ourselves why situations like this continue.
[gdlr_quote align=”right” ]What kind of country punishes poor women and children for being poor by taking away their access to food and then breaking up families?”[/gdlr_quote]
By the time I met Pat, she had slashed her wrists in a suicide attempt, because she had lost hope and was in need of mental health support. Sadly, she was not able to get either. I will never forget what she told me, “Life is a merry-go-round of hell that I cannot escape from.”
In case anyone was wondering, there were no good paying jobs in the area where Pat lived. She had no chance of moving out of the area. Plus, the slow and steady chains of class and race and gender oppression had already squelched her soul. To me, this was and is unacceptable.
Whose Personal Responsibility?
Bill Clinton’s “Personal Responsibility Act,” touted as teaching poor moms on welfare the “right” work ethic, harmed many poor women and children. It is an example, in my opinion, of economic human rights violations in the United States. What kind of country punishes poor women and children for being poor by taking away their access to food and then breaking up families?
Since 1996, life for impoverished women is much harder – while corporations are much richer. Individuals and families across the country are even more likely to have their basic needs unmet, including the need for food.
Many studies show that across the United States one in eight people, many of whom are children, lacks access to food at some point in time. Yet, there is an embarrassing amount to eat if you sit in a privileged position in the class structure. In fact, a lot of this food goes to waste.
I have had many of my students attempt to address food scarcity by asking restaurants to donate food – only to find out that there are laws in place which prevent restaurants from donating nourishing, safe food. There are even cases of folks getting arrested for giving food to people who are homeless and on the street. This is America 2018.
[gdlr_quote align=”left” ]Food should not be withheld from human beings as punishment for not complying with unjust mandates – or for any reason.”[/gdlr_quote]
Given that a lack of access to food causes other health, social and academic problems, it is hard to understand why this is even an issue. But it is. Clinton’s “reforms” did nothing but escalate the problems of food scarcity and hunger. No one should have to go through what Pat and her children went through, but so many do.
Food should not be withheld from human beings as punishment for not complying with unjust mandates – or for any reason. Since the state caused the issue, it should find a way to rectify the situation by making sure everyone has access to safe and healthy food. Don’t you agree?
* Name changed for the purpose of anonymity.