“We just get enough to feed ourselves, and then there’s possibly a week where we go without food,” said Brenda, a Brooklyn single, senior grandmother of two. “I will fight to the end to have someone hear my voice.” According to a USDA 2017 Food Plan report, the lowest monthly food bill for the average family of three ranges from $460 to $500. However, Brenda and her family receive $320 in SNAP benefits a month. In addition to food stamps, Brenda supports her family by retrieving groceries from pantries and discounts at wholesale stores. “A person solely on public assistance,” she noted, “I don’t know how they make ends meet.”
June 22, the House is scheduled to vote on a farm bill, initiated by Michael Conaway (R-Texas), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, with the proposed objective to reduce poverty and promote self-sufficiency. If the farm bill passes, able-bodied recipients between the ages of 18 and 59 who receive food aid through SNAP will be required to find a job or attend job training classes for at least 20 hours each week beginning in 2021. “What would you do if you send me back to work, even though I am legally and permanently disabled,” said Brenda. Although she would be exempt from the bill’s work requirements, Brenda would still continue to struggle, along with, according to the Urban Justice Center, more than 2 million Americans who might lose their benefits under the new legislation.
In 2017, approximately 43 million Americans were receiving SNAP benefits. “Families on SNAP are the working-poor, disabled and children. Most of the clients we serve are working families,” said Dr. Melony Samuels, the founder and the executive director of the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, the largest food pantry in Brooklyn. The Campaign Against Hunger is deemed the first prominent supermarket-style pantry that serves 30,000 individuals per month. Not only does the pantry offer healthy food choices, but also BCAH provides social services such as food stamps and affordable insurance. “We work aggressively to help families get on SNAP,” Samuels explained. “Families that are knocking on our doors are truly in need. The numbers and the families speak clearly.”
Last month, the farm bill was rejected by the House, and the vote was 198-213. Every Democrat voted no as well as 30 Republicans. Many GOP lawmakers voted against the bill after failing to receive concessions on spending and a future vote on immigration in exchange for their support; in other words, according to Helen Strom, the benefits unit supervisor at the Urban Justice Center, the GOP votes “did not come from any moral, ideological intent to protect SNAP benefits…they want an immigration bill to pass before they vote on anything.”
The Urban Justice Center is a nonprofit organization that provides legal services, community education and systemic advocacy for struggling New York City residents. According to UJC, the farm bill advocates for funding a work training program that consists “of less than $30 per needed job training slot per month” despite the cost of effective operating programs that help people find meaningful work opportunities ranging from $7,000 to $14,000 per participant. To Brenda, the work training program is intended to continue the separation between the haves and the have-nots. “Jobs are going to hire the college graduate,” she stated. Because the job market is becoming more competitive in the sphere of computer-science and entrepreneurship, Brenda believes that it would be unlikely for companies to hire people on public assistance.
Brenda serves as a figure of resilience and advocacy in the Safety Net Project at UJC. Despite her economic and health struggles, she fights every day to try and advocate for those in poverty. She concluded, “Change is not something that will happen overnight. There are people who deserve a chance.”