Personal stories connect subjects to readers in ways that statistics can’t by themselves—but with 47 million faces to choose from in examining food stamp use, it’s easy to let anecdotes spin the facts.
Here’s one face of food stamps: Tianna Gaines-Turner, 34, married, and living in Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District, Philadelphia’s hungriest neighborhood. Her husband works at a grocery deli. She does some child care for money. The resulting income wreaks havoc on welfare formulas so the assistance they get isn’t enough: The couple’s three children have asthma and epilepsy. The family lives off food stamps, and sometimes the parents eat what the children leave on their plates.
Gaines-Turner is also an activist for Witnesses to Hunger, a voice for those who live in poverty daily and survive because of public assistance. She’s told her story to TV viewers and legislators alike: Government programs must be protected. Greg Kaufmann, author of “This Week in Poverty” for The Nation, used Gaines-Turner to blast Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and accuse him of ignoring facts on government programs and poverty. Ryan is leading a verbal Republican surge toward welfare reform, perhaps already in the works.
Kaufmann and friends act as if the 47 million SNAP (food stamp) recipients are all like the deserving Gaines-Turner family. But some thoughtless conservative pundits act as if all the 47 million are like the 29-year-old surfer bum from this weekend’s well-done Fox News special. “Thank you, taxpayers,” he says. When finding a face for SNAP, one side trots out the worst-off, and the other trots out the worst people.
In the real world, broken families make broken finances, and 47 percent of SNAP recipients are children. Since 2008, food stamps have grown disproportionately to the economy as the feds try to legislate diet and states pressure struggling families to bring home streams of “free” federal money. Food stamps have doubled in cost, and enrollment has increased 70 percent since 2008. Questioning the status quo is perfectly legitimate.
Ryan and Gaines-Turner are political opponents now, but their positions may have a lot in common. Gaines-Turner decries how the government often penalizes the poor the moment they start to get ahead, ultimately hurting some who try to escape government dependence. Ryan has said many disjointed programs “work against each other. In effect, we penalize people for finding a job or getting a raise.”
Ryan’s stated goal is to streamline programs, preserve a safety-net for the truly poor, and create new incentives for both givers and receivers: “That act of involvement, of human beings coming together to help one another—that’s so much better than some cold government program.”
Gaines-Turner told MSNBC activist Melissa Harris-Perry that Ryan has no clue. Perhaps that’s because she’s never seen love in action except from her own impoverished neighbors. If so, that’s an indictment of conservatives and Christians.
And that raises perhaps the biggest question: Why has Gaines-Turner remained in the nation’s hungriest neighborhood outside the Bronx? Kaufmann, the Philadelphia Inquirer, MSNBC, and CNN have all featured this woman, yet she and her husband still resort to “kids plate surfing” for food. Are we still so focused on politics that no one has thought to lend a hand?