Recently, I read an article from the New York Times that was examining the interesting convergence of homeless individuals and participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The Occupiers, of course have chosen to take to the streets while many homeless individuals live on the streets less by choice and more because they have hit rock bottom due to a lack of income, mental health challenges and other unmet human needs.
While there has been apparent conflict between the two groups of people in some of the cities with Occupy Wall Street camp outs, there are some interesting perspectives as they share the streets. One of the most striking is that both groups of people feel a measure of disenfranchisement from the economic and political power structure in this country.
There is a belief that our economy no longer results in a sense of shared prosperity and that the inequities are more glaring than ever in the wake of this latest economic downturn.
Undoubtedly, the economy is not working for millions of people who are looking for jobs and some sense of economic stability. We can argue over whether this is the “new normal” with large unemployment and low wages or that there is a skills mismatch between workers and the jobs available or a mix of the two.
Cutting the basics
What is clear, however, is that this new economy with inadequate tax revenues and tax policies that remain unchanged have resulted in significant budget deficits.
Having charged the Super Committee with the task of balancing the national spending and tax challenges that are dragging the country down, Congress will be embroiled in some significant moral questions. Some of the questions they will be dealing with will impact both the homeless population and those newly unemployed who have chosen to voice their concerns by taking to the streets.
One of the basic questions our representatives in Washington D.C. will face is how much they will be willing to cut basic programs that keep people from being destitute?
It has been suggested, for example, that programs like food stamps, now called SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, could be cut by as much as $127 billion over the next 10 years. Current benefits are a low $1.30 a meal. Any cut to the program will result in either a cut to each individual and family’s grant or the elimination of eligibility altogether for a whole host of people.
SNAP is the nation’s basic safety net against hunger. Its goal is to alleviate hunger and malnutrition by permitting low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet.
SNAP provides a monthly benefit amount to eligible low-income individuals and families that can be used to purchase food. Eligibility for SNAP is based on household income and assets, with 76 percent of all benefits going to households with children.
If the cuts were to come solely by eliminating eligibility from those currently eligible, more than 8 million people would need to be cut from the program. Think about that: 8 million more people without access to food, many of them children, seniors and disabled adults.
The impact of such a decision would be huge. There is no way that the churches, synagogues and mosques and other charitable enterprises can provide for the gap that will be increased.
What is government role?
The scope of this single cut is, in fact, three times the country’s entire charitable food enterprise: food shelves, food banks, pantries and food lines. As Congress faces decisions like this one, the citizens and our representatives will be wrestling with the fundamental question about the role of government in continuing to assist those who cannot meet their basic needs.
Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical, Pacem in Terris, teaches that food is a basic right and that because we are social creatures living in community, we have the responsibility to ensure that people have what they need.
In order to meet this challenge, then, we can either pull together as a society and agree that programs like SNAP are a worthy humanitarian tax investment or we will have to triple the capacity of our charitable food programs through the use of volunteers and volunteer dollars/food contributions.
As we think through this one decision, let’s reflect on which one of these outcomes provides the greatest dignity to those in need. Because many of the homeless have little capacity to fix their own meals, they necessarily receive whatever has been contributed for their meals. But do we really want to shift another 8 million people to stand in line begging for food rather than receiving a government issued electronic benefit card that can be used at the grocery store to select the food that is wanted and needed at home?
It’s an important consideration!
Kathy Tomlin is director of the Of- fice for Social Justice of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapo- lis.
Category: Faith and Justice