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February 18, 2014

ANDERSON: Money, politics, and the poor

— Politics and the poor have been an enigma in my life since the beginning of my professional existence. Money certainly also became an ugly part of that.

Every time political leaders changed on a national level, the tone for the poor changed. I began working in this field as a young woman in 1979, and four years later President Ronald Reagan was elected and the Gramm-Rudman act passed. Shortly after, a real “war on the poor” began. We, as a country, were tired of carrying the load. We weren’t quite sure what the load was, but we were tired of carrying it.

The result was the decimation of domestic programming and the slashing of budgets, which began a decades-long trend. In the 1980s, we were working aggressively in eliminating hunger and during the mid-’80s we slashed programs. We did it again under President Clinton with the welfare reform efforts and we are doing it now.

Today’s efforts are on drug testing welfare recipients. Why?

Millions of dollars we profess to need will be spent on maybe 2 percent of the population receiving benefits. That is the historical reality of those tested in the few states it has been tried in. Oregon uncovered a whopping 2.6 percent using drugs in their efforts. I’m not sure the rationale.

Recently, I watched a movie called “A Place at the Table,” sponsored by the Center for Lay Ministries. The statistics were overpowering. In the 1980s, the country had 402 food banks; today more than 42,000.

We used to identify hungry children and feed them through nutrition programs. Today, two out of five of our children go to bed hungry in this region, according to United Way statistics.

There were massive efforts to address hunger; today we are making massive efforts to cut food stamps and test recipients, and no longer do we distribute commodities except through food banks. We have reduced the amount people can receive monthly, all while we have those 40 percent of children going to bed hungry.

Logically, one would think that 2 percent of anything is considered a viable loss factor. Not so with the poor. We are willing to spend millions of dollars to prove that there are indeed those who cheat on welfare.

I am not naïve. I know that. There are those who abuse the food stamp program, just as there are doctors who pad Medicaid bills, medical facilities that charge for services received or not, none of which are right, but we are targeting 2 percent because?

Right now to receive food stamps in this community, you have to be poor, very poor. You have to report, you have to apply and you receive a debit card — no one receives food stamps anymore). The amount isn’t enough to last a month for most people.

Many still visit the Center for Lay Ministries and other food programs in the area. The last week of the month is the hardest. People have to go to ask for food and the ask is much harder than the give. An intake has to be done, and the people wanting food feel the need to explain why the food stamps are already gone, and food is given. The Center does so with kindness and a gentle, Christian mindset that they are there to help. It doesn’t make the person receiving the help feel much better because the ask is always harder than the give.

In the law, it states that a drug felony prohibits someone from receiving food stamps, period. So known drug addicts with a conviction cannot receive benefits. Just who are we trying to appease with all of this?

Often times it is convenient to have a scapegoat politically. Why not the poor? As long as we keep people stirred up about those “welfare cheats” and “drug addicts” on welfare, we don’t concentrate on the real problems of poverty. My grandmother would have called that a red herring. It’s putting up a problem so as to pull attention away from the real issues that we should be concerned about, like the fact that so many in our community have to depend on food stamps in the first place. We should address the issues of low wages, underemployment and health care if we really want to spend money.

There are roughly 475 families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Family’s (welfare) but more than 11,400 on food stamps in the region. That’s a lot of working poor people. The money spent on drug testing would be better served filling the shelves of the Center for Lay Ministries, offering job training programs to underskilled workers or offering incentives to companies for hiring those on benefits to reduce the amount of dependencies through employment. Passing a living wage law as opposed to a minimum wage would be even better.

Hunger, homelessness and health care are three things no American should ever have to worry about with the amount of resources we have in this country. We have a responsibility to live up to because we profess to be a Christian nation and in the tradition of Christians everywhere the poor are the people we should reach out to first.

— Barbara Anderson, Jeffersonville, is executive director of Haven House Services Inc. Reach her by email at barbanderson_1@yahoo.com

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