John Sutter's recent CNN article about Lake Providence Louisiana, a lake that separates two populations with the widest income gap in America, struck me to the core: The lake's name evokes hope well beyond its current social and economic status. On one side live the five percent of East Carroll Parish with incomes exceeding $500,000; on the other side, the five percent whose median income falls below the federal poverty line of $23,500 for a family of four. The north side of the lake is home to many prosperous famers who typically receive $20,000 or more a year in Federal Crop subsidies. The south side is home to families whose only benefits from the federal government might consist of $1,500 a year from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.
That's right, folks. The average crop subsidy is in many cases larger per household on one side of the lake than other families' entire pre-tax income on the opposite side. Yet, many "north-siders" believe the "south-siders" remain poor because the $1,500 they receive in SNAP, courtesy of "income redistribution," discourages them from working.
As a political society, we seem to have accepted this income gap, and along with it, some wild misconceptions about income redistribution. In so doing, we devalue the meaning of the word "neighbor," as well as our longstanding heritage of empathy toward those less fortunate. This highlights a gap far more onerous than income. That gap is empathy.
One of the fundamental rights that has fallen casualty to the empathy gap is access to food -- wholesome, nutritious and meaningful food. Our history as an abundant America, with wholesome food and opportunity available to all, is swiftly becoming lore as food insecurity rises steadily with cuts to social programs like SNAP, while unemployment gives way to under-employment, and the societal woes that come with it.
Oh neighbor, wherefore art thou?
If the North-siders had more empathy, they might actually visit the South-side, not to help fix homes but, to count the number of businesses with available jobs. It is lack of employment or underemployment that is the root cause of poverty throughout America.
The story of 22-year-old mother of three, Valtakia Jones, says it all: after four years looking for work, she waits by the phone for a call from a McDonalds 15 miles away, yet she has no car. Nonetheless, she says she will do anything for the job, even pay someone to drive her to work. The call never came.
Food Stamps do not prevent people from seeking jobs where there are none.
Poor urban and rural communities throughout the U.S. are littered with stories like Valtakia's, yet many political leaders responsible to represent communities in poverty enthusiastically insist the poor are "sitting on the couch, expecting free lunch," or they quote scripture: "The Lord says; he who will not work, shall not eat."
In America past, if a neighboring family's house burnt, the community came together to provide food, shelter and transportation until the family got back on its feet. Today, a house burns and the neighbors whisper; "I hope they have good insurance." In communities like Lake Providence, homes are burning while those who are whole quietly advocate eliminating their neighbors' insurance.
While the food service industry has grown to be the largest employer around the globe, and celebrity chefs highly prized and lauded, struggling neighbors are being evermore denied the right to wholesome food at a pace unrivaled by any other industrial nation.
Our struggling economy has caused the number of families enrolled in SNAP to reach record highs, and yet the cuts to the program, which began November 1st, will result in a decrease in benefits for each of the nearly 48 million SNAP recipients -- 87 percent of whom live in households with the most vulnerable -- children, seniors or people with disabilities. The House of Representative passed nutrition bill further cutting the program $39 billion. This will pull the rug out from millions of vulnerable Americans.
Lack of access to wholesome food, a.ka. malnutrition or under-nutrition, is linked to numerous social and health issues: poor educational outcomes, diet-related diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, high violence and high teen pregnancy rates -- all of which hamper productivity and hamstring our economy with billions in health care costs.
Can food fix this?
Food equality is a lever we can employ to forever change the face of poverty in the United States. All families, regardless of income, should have the same access to fresh, affordable food. Investing in programs that put wholesome food on the tables of all Americans, regardless of income, would result in greater productivity, and greatly reduce healthcare costs. With Moody's Economy.com proving that $1 in SNAP creates $1.73 in GDP, imagine the economic impact a deepened investment would cause. SNAP should not be cut, it should be enhanced.
Imagine the opportunity for every American family to put fresh, nutritious food on the table. Consistently. Day-in and day-out. Watch as families create deep bonds over good food. Watch children flourish, learn, and become our next productive citizens -- who in turn believe that empathy is part of our DNA, and that food can close the gap.