By Marian Wright Edelman
In January 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took a rare sabbatical to write what would become his last book: Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? In the final chapter he raised this question: “Not too many years ago, Dr. Kirtley Mather, a Harvard geologist, wrote a book entitled Enough and to Spare. He set forth the basic theme that famine is wholly unnecessary in the modern world. Today, therefore, the question on the agenda must read: Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table, when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life?”
Dr. King’s answer: “There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will . . . The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.’”
The Trump Administration has made a lot of promises about being “great,” but again and again has shown a basic contempt and lack of compassion for the poorest and most vulnerable both outside our borders and in our own nation. In one of its latest failures to show concern for “the least of these,” the administration finalized a new rule in December to weaken the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by imposing time limits and work requirements. Instead of using some of our vast resources to finally eradicate hunger in America in 2020, the USDA estimates nearly 700,000 people will lose benefits and be at risk of going even hungrier. The deficit in human will is on full display.
Under the new rule more able-bodied adults without dependents will be required to work or participate in work activities for 20 hours a week in order to receive SNAP benefits for more than three months in a three-year period. States’ ability to waive time limits in areas where there are many unemployed adults and too few jobs has been reduced. As CDF’s policy team has explained, research suggests that rather than promoting increased employment, time limits actually harm health and productivity. Data also show the overwhelming majority of SNAP participants who struggle to meet the 20 hours of work per week requirement aren’t falling short because they’re not interested in working but because of the volatility in the low-wage labor market, caregiving duties, or personal health issues. Punishing them by making it harder for them to put food on the table is not going to help.
Although current law doesn’t impose these time limits on children or adults with children, the rule’s devastating impact will still harm children because children living in poverty often depend on pooled resources (including SNAP benefits) from extended family members who don’t claim them as dependents. Right now, SNAP helps feed 19.9 million children in our nation—more than 1 in 4. With less food to go around, everyone will suffer.
In CDF’s formal comments to the USDA when the rule was first proposed, we said: “Given the critical role SNAP plays for children and families in communities across the country, we have serious concerns about any policies that would restrict access to SNAP for those who are hungry… SNAP has a proven track record of reducing food insecurity, lifting people out of poverty and generating economic activity. We must continue to improve upon access to this critical safety net program, not make it more difficult to assist those it is intended to benefit.”
This rule is just one of several recent inhumane attempts by the Trump Administration to take food away from hungry families—and we must continue to strongly resist and speak out against every new threat. We cannot afford to become overwhelmed or exhausted. As our nation pauses for the holiday celebrating Dr. King’s birthday, our current national path seems to reject Dr. King’s definition of greatness at every turn. But as Dr. King reminded us in Where Do We Go From Here?, in words of tremendous encouragement and hope for this moment:
“In any social revolution there are times when the tail winds of triumph and fulfillment favor us, and other times when strong head winds of disappointment and setbacks beat against us relentlessly. We must not permit adverse winds to overwhelm us as we journey across life’s mighty Atlantic; we must be sustained by our engines of courage in spite of the winds. This refusal to be stopped, this ‘courage to be,’ this determination to go on ‘in spite of’ is the hallmark of any great movement.…Today’s despair is a poor chisel to carve out tomorrow’s justice.”
Marian Wright Edelman is President Emeritus of the Children's Defense Fund.