Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity will be running a series of commentaries in the summer of 2012 on the fight to end childhood hunger in America.
This commentary is the eighth installment in the series, which is entitled “Ending Childhood Hunger in America.”
This spring, the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University held a major anti-hunger conference in Philadelphia that drew a committed cross-section of advocates, academics, international leaders, government officials, and journalists. There was one striking difference between this gathering and other similar efforts—one-third of the participants were community members who experience hunger and poverty first-hand.
I have learned from experience that all our well-meaning efforts to advocate for policies that help hungry children and families often fall on deaf ears if they don’t include the voices of those who understand the importance of these programs at a deeply personal level.
When we met in workshops and discussion groups, community members participated as equal partners. Many are parents of young children and currently live in poverty. More than 30 participants were from our signature program, Witnesses to Hunger, a participatory research and action project that helps low-income women assert their ideas about ending poverty through photographs and testimony. They were joined by dozens of other community participants—men and women from across the country who are tired of living in the silence and violence of poverty.
Working with people who are low-income as experts changes and strengthens the national dialogue on hunger. Policymakers rarely have a chance to directly speak to those who are experiencing poverty firsthand. They are always more eager to listen when I visit them along with the mother of young children who can talk about her struggles either to pay the rent or buy food. Such conversations also expose low-income women to the power of democracy by demonstrating that legislators are human beings who want to help; that government isn’t simply the caseworker at the welfare office who looks down at them when they apply for benefits.
The stories women from Witnesses to Hunger tell can be difficult to hear—not only for the policymakers, but for advocates like us who are forced to acknowledge that the programs we care about don’t always work as well as they could.
They are stories like Myra Young’s, who spoke about the difficulties she faced when she became pregnant with her second child. Through an administrative mistake she lost her Medicaid coverage and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. She was unable to pay for medications for her bi-polar disorder and for food to sustain her high risk pregnancy, leaving her to contend with hunger, an untreated mental illness, and ultimately, a stillbirth.
It takes an intentional willingness to partner with those who know hunger and poverty best, and who can speak to the value of programs and policies through real-life experiences. They’re the ones suffering the prolonged wait times in local government offices when applying for benefit programs. They’re the ones making the choice to feed their children and go hungry themselves. We need to recognize that it isn’t enough to sit at our computers theorizing that if we just frame something differently, the policymakers will understand. Many policymakers won’t understand unless they hear directly from those who are living with these struggles every day.
That is why mobilizing and amplifying the voices of people who experience hunger was the top item on the Call to Action that emerged from our spring conference. We believe the action items that follow it cannot be successful without the participation of women and their families.
Who better, for example, to make the case for one of our key items – simplifying eligibility criteria across all safety net programs – than women like Crystal Sears who had to walk across town multiple times and spend weeks applying for food assistance, Medicaid, and housing assistance? From Crystal’s vantage point, those who make the policies have no understanding of what it means to be a caregiver trying to raise children while contending with a system that too often seems to make her life harder.
During the coming months, as we fight to protect funding for SNAP and other food assistance programs, we need to bring more recipients into the debate who can speak about this program’s importance to their families. With one in seven Americans now receiving SNAP, we have plenty of people to draw from who can tell their stories and describe how the program worked for them. Each of us working on poverty has the responsibility to ensure their voices are heard.
Research shows that people on public assistance don’t want to rely on these programs indefinitely. They want to be self-sufficient, independent, and doing great things for their families and their communities. Speaking out themselves on their own behalf is an excellent place to start.
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Mariana Chilton is the director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University.
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