Hunger summit addresses myth that poor people deserve what they get

One week’s worth of food with SNAP benefits for family of four
Items which cannot be purchased with SNAP

True or false? If poor people are poor, it’s their own fault. If you give a poor person cash, they will squander it on alcohol and cigarettes.

The truth is nobody wants to be poor. Nobody wants to struggle from day to day wondering where they’re going to get money for food, for clothing, for medicine.

Last Thursday evening at the Lewisburg United Methodist Church, a gathering, organized by the Greenbrier Committee on the Poor People’s Campaign, attended a hands-on Hunger Summit to discuss and work on what Poor People’s Campaign co-chairperson Loretta Young called, “The unfinished business of living in poverty.”

“A hungry child is a hungry child, no matter who it is,” Young said. “It’s not fair of us to fight the poor. We should fight poverty.”

The purpose of the planning committee was to bring faith leaders, charitable emergency food providers, state and local government, health providers, advocacy groups, business and industry and community members together to learn about hunger and food insecurity. The Poor People’s Campaign is a re-envisionment of Dr. Martin Luther King’s campaign of the same name from 1968. Organizers across the nation are bringing it back to combat what they say are social injustices that cause poverty in the world’s richest nation.

Urging awareness that poverty is closer than you think, Trudy Laurence, co-chair of Poor People’s Campaign Greenbrier Committee, said, “We live in a very wealthy, first rate country, but we are surrounded by poverty.” The solution, she said, lies at the grass roots level where we have “a chance to change the narrative.”

As an example of how systemic poverty affects those caught in poverty and are shamed for being poor, group members were invited to participate in a role-playing demonstration of how cultural shaming affects those on food stamps every day. Even with an EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card, which looks like an ordinary credit card, those using SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or food stamps, are still marginalized and shamed. The effect was immediate and the gathering responded with sadness, anger and embarrassment.

Food insecurity is rising. Statistics provided by organizers of the event show that 336,300 West Virginians, or  22 percent, live in poverty, and most of them face some measure of food insecurity. But the poverty rate for families with a female head of household is greater at 35 percent. The numbers are even greater for children. Sixty-five percent of Greenbrier County school-age children would qualify for free or reduced lunch even with free meals provided to all schoolchildren by the Board of Education. The elderly are also vulnerable. Senior citizens who qualifies for SNAP are allowed only $89 worth of food for one month, and cannot use those funds to purchase necessary items such as paper towels, laundry detergent, toothpaste or pet food with the SNAP funding.

Another vulnerable population are people with drug felony convictions. Rick Wilson, Charleston Gazette Mail columnist and spokesperson for the American Friends Service Committee, spoke at the gathering to report on a legislature welfare reform bill (HB4001), passed in the last legislative session, which imposed a lifetime ban on receiving SNAP for people with drug felony convictions. The bill creates obstacles to re-entry and recovery, and adds negative effects on employment, housing, assets, and the person’s family. These stresses, Wilson said, can contribute to relapse, recidivism, and sometimes fatal overdose. A pilot program, launched in the state’s more prosperous counties, cut around 5,400 people off of SNAP, according to Wilson. The Poor People’s Campaign is working to convince Gov. Jim Justice to introduce legislation to overturn HB4001.

Hunger summit attendees were invited to brainstorming sessions to share ideas on policies and legislation efforts to, for example, provide more funding for food banks, better transportation for rural areas, green jobs, and increasing minimum wage without losing food stamps; where to find helpful gleanings from churches, gardens, restaurants, farmers markets and so on; and locations of current area inventories and incentives such as Wellspring, Meals on Wheels, food banks and Energy Express WVU extension services.

The meeting produced a great turnout of 50 attendees, and lots of personal commitments to continue the work of “being a part of the army to fight poverty.”

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