“Taking food out of people’s mouths doesn’t create jobs, it leaves entire communities hungry!” reads the Color of Change petition created by Stand with Dignity, a grassroots organization of low-income residents and workers in the New Orleans area that are against the most recent attack on public assistance.
The 1998 Welfare Reform Law requires that dependent-free, able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 must complete 20 hours of work, volunteer service or a federally-approved job training program on a weekly basis to receive food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) after a three-month period. However, when states are faced with high unemployment or insufficient jobs, they have the option to waive this requirement. Since 2009, nearly every state, including Louisiana, has done so.
As Louisiana finds itself with the ninth-highest unemployment rate in the country, Governor Bobby Jindal has chosen to reject this waiver. Children and Family Services Secretary, Suzy Sonnier, announced this “starvation plan” in September of this year, insisting that malnutrition will pressure freeloaders to get back to work. Okay, she really said she wants to “seek opportunities for SNAP recipients to increase their self-sufficiency.”
But since she explained no further plans to raise wages or create new jobs, what we all heard were the sounds of bootstraps whipping through the air before hitting us in the face. Falling oil prices have made layoffs commonplace in the state’s oil-and-gas industry. New Orleans has the second highest inequality rate in the country. There is only one job available for every two unemployed people.
The SNAP program is completely funded by the federal government, so the state does not even put up any money in the first place.
Despite whatever welfare-rich boogeymen politicians and critics might tell scary stories about, of the 47 million people who receive food stamps nationally, only 10 percent are dependent-free, able-bodied adults. And just so we are all on the same page, such an individual’s annual allowed maximum gross income is $15,180, and their maximum allowed monthly benefit is $194.
Roughly 62,000 Louisiana residents are at risk of starvation starting New Year’s Day.
Speak Out, Fight Back
With their full-day participation in the November 10 Day of Action, Stand with Dignity backed up their strong words.
In an especially creative action, organizers staged a series of skits to demonstrate the situation of those affected by this disastrous policy. Skit characters approach employers looking for work only to be turned down. The characters are told they are not qualified without a college degree. The restaurant employer tells multiple characters they do not “fit the description” for front-of-house positions. A temp agency tells a character they would hire him for construction, but he doesn’t have the required tools and they will not provide them. Another employer tells the character they would be qualified if only they had their own transportation. One character is able to secure a position with the temp agency, but the position does not start immediately. This character approaches Governor Jindal to ask for assistance in the meantime but is denied.
Governor Jindal wheelbarrows a trash bag labeled “$7 billion” to Mr. Big Business, who he says deserves this handout because he works hard.
One Stand with Dignity member, a “homeless brother,” as he refers to himself, gives a testimony to the crowd. “I gotta eat. I need food stamps. I do small criminal activity. I’m sorry. But when my stomach hurts…It’s hard for a brother outchea. I don’t know how to sugarcoat it or explain it, but it’s hard. You take food out of a kid’s mouth, they gonna grow up snatching.”
Other members of organization share testimonies:
- “The goal is control. These policies are to keep people in place. You work for whatever because otherwise you won’t eat. That’s the purpose of homelessness. I’ll do anything ‘cause I’m afraid of something worse.”
- “We pay the consequences when crime increases in our neighborhood.”
- “I thought I was doing something wrong because police were always around [in my neighborhood]. I went to jail for nothing. Then I chose to sell drugs because I was going there anyway.”
Pastor Don Everard, Hope House Director, discusses people he meets at the food pantry he runs and their struggles to work 20 hours a week: Walmart refusing to schedule anyone with so many hours, struggling with depression but not being considered disabled enough for SSI, and a criminal background. Pastor Everard is one of 40 people currently on a 15-day hunger strike in protest of Jindal’s starvation plan. He explains pantries already struggle to provide enough food for those they serve. “Louisiana is not unique in [its decision to end the waiver], but it is pathetic that we are a part of it. ”
In reference to his decision to participate in the hunger strike, he says, “I am doing it to do good, but for a lot of people, they are fasting, they are doing without something, but not benefitting. They are fasting because someone else needs more money and more power.”
The group marched around the building to hand-deliver an administrative complaint inside the office. Then, Stand with Dignity organizer Toya concluded the action the way they conclude all their meetings, by reciting Assata’s words: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
You can help Louisiana fight back by signing the Color of Change petition. So far, it has 1,117 signatures.