Failing to understand the ‘Food Stamp Challenge’

In the past few months, it has been amusing to read how some of our well compensated legislators continue to engage in silly political theater in their quest to “understand” poverty.

Recently, Bay Area Assemblywoman Sally Lieber slept two nights in the street (with a sleeping bag, a floor pad, a videographer and cell phone) in an effort to “understand” homelessness, and fellow Bay Area Assemblyman Mark Leno took up a seven day peanut-butter and canned-soup diet (the Food Stamp Challenge). These charades only illustrate the difficult adjustment by individuals, who humbled themselves to more modest means, but yet have an annual base salary of $113,000, a tax-free $162 daily per diem, a $400 monthly car allowance, a state credit card and enough staff for two offices.

The brief two or seven day stint, with the internal knowledge that each individual would go back to their accustomed lifestyles, failed to address the most important aspects of poverty: the mental anguish on how to survive and move ahead.

When my parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, my father worked as a swamper in the produce business, grossing $3,640 a year–the national median income was $10,290. We wore second-hand cloths, we rarely ate out and our Christmas and birthday gifts were purchased months before, on lay-away. Our family, like so many before and after us, learned to manage poverty and find ways to escape.

As my father learned how to use the machinery at work, my mother took English courses at the local adult school and learned to sew. With the little money they saved, they purchased a sewing machine so that my mother could sew after work and on weekends. The kids were required to do well in school; we were being prepped for college. My parents, and us kids by extension, learned to look upward and ahead rather than sit idly in the present. Opportunities not only had to be seized, but also created for ourselves.

Poverty is tough, no question. It requires individuals to stretch extremely limited resources and find alternative ways to help pay for basic necessities. While the initial inclination from some politicians is to legislate people out of poverty, they must recognize there exists no one-size-fits-all solution. The safety nets provided by our federal, state and local governments are only that: nets. The ladder of social mobility is one each individual must climb themselves.

What can government do? Our government institutions should be in the business of promoting independence, not governmental dependence. With an increasing population and a finite number of available funds, able-bodied individuals should be required to help supplement available government and community-based assistance programs. Increases to the $1-per-meal food-stamp budget, a figure often quoted by legislators and food-bank executive directors, would provide more assistance, but so would the income individuals can earn on their own.

Managing and escaping poverty begins with the understanding that independence requires individual empowerment and motivation. The road to independence is paved with the desire, willingness and motivation to access and harness the tools of education, language acquisition, and job training programs- my mother would add that a tough love approach and an occasional kick in the behind could also do wonders.

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