America, stop grinding the faces of the poor

by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
March 22, 2023

CNN — “What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” (Isaiah 3:15, New International Version Bible)

Congressional Republicans have proposed the first of what promises to be a series of bills to limit access to food assistance for needy families. The first piece of legislation, introduced last week by US Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, proposes work requirements and funding cuts to the already beleaguered Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), measures that will hurt those dependent on the largest food assistance program in the country.

Johnson rationalized the cuts by telling Politico that “work is the only path out of poverty.” This moralizing demonization of needy families is not only tired and offensive, but it overlooks that the majority of food stamp recipients already work hard to care for their families, with many unable to pay their bills despite juggling multiple low-wage jobs.

As they threaten to cut funding for vital public health and anti-poverty programs, politicians, including self-proclaimed Christians who say they value life, are advocating to take food from the mouth of babies. And these latest proposed cuts come on top of the loss of expanded pandemic-era SNAP benefits, which ended this month in 32 states as well as Washington, DC; Guam; and the US Virgin Islands. The reduction is expected to affect 16 million households.

These cuts are also happening as food prices are soaring and families are already experiencing unacceptable levels of hunger and want. In fact, when expanded SNAP benefits were extended a year ago, at least 53 million Americans still relied on food banks or community programs to keep themselves half-decently fed, according to a Feeding America report. 

In one of the world’s wealthiest nations, we must come to terms with the depth of societal failure at the root of mass hunger. How is it that food assistance benefits face cuts at precisely the same moment that high-earning depositors of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank are being rescued to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars?

This dynamic is even more troubling when you consider that food assistance isn’t the only cut politicians levy on the backs of the poor. As pandemic-era Medicaid expansion ends, an estimated 15 million people are at risk of losing lifesaving health insurance. 

These uninsured families find themselves back in the company of the 87 million people who were uninsured or underinsured before the pandemic started. And put simply, health care cuts can mean death. To be exact, researchers at Harvard Medical School found that the number of uninsured Americans increased by roughly 2.3 million from 2016-2019, resulting in as many as 25,180 deaths.

Johnson, the congressman from South Dakota, and other politicians justify cuts such as those coming to SNAP with invocations about the silver bullet of work. But many of the Republican representatives who are slashing food assistance in the name of job promotion stand in the way of decent work for poor people by refusing to improve labor conditions, protect the right of workers to organize collectively or raise wages. 

The average CEO made 670 times more than their median workers in 2021, according to a survey last year by the progressive think tank Institute for Policy Studies, and yet the federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 and has not increased since 2009. Research from 2020 shows that increasing the minimum wage by even a paltry $1 could lead to fewer people ending their own lives. In fact, a recent study from Columbia University released last month found a troubling association between low wages and higher mortality rates, suggesting minimum wage increases could prevent needless deaths.

If these politicians were serious about lifting the load of poverty, they would fund necessary food programs and raise the minimum wage to a living wage. Poverty doesn’t exist because poor people don’t work, and it certainly doesn’t exist because we have a scarcity of resources.

What we have is a scarcity of political will and moral consciousness. Or, more precisely, the political and moral will of those in power is simply being directed toward other priorities. Namely, helping the wealthy even as the poor stare down a barrel of cuts that will take food off the table and keep them in fear of making a necessary trip to the hospital.

America, it’s time for a wake-up call. Poverty, hunger, despair and inequality are killing too many people. They are grinding the faces of the poor. This problem has gone on for far too long, and we will not be silent anymore.