Michael F. Curtin, Jr., CEO, DC Central Kitchen
Violent crimes are awful things, and a just society should do everything in its power to prevent those who perpetrate them from ever hurting another human being. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) probably thinks so too. That may be how he publicly justifies his amendment to the pending Farm Bill barring certain violent ex-offenders from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The Senator's plan to cut costs by penalizing poor convicts, however, will inspire more violent crimes, not fewer, while condemning more men and women to overcrowded prisons at great cost to our fragile economy.
If Mr. Vitter's aim was to ease the burden on American taxpayers, he has missed terribly. If his true intent is to demonize our most vulnerable neighbors as freeloaders and low-life criminals, or if he's shooting to perpetuate the destructive, intergenerational cycle of incarceration, hunger, and poverty, he has hit his mark dead on.
Don't get me wrong--I'm no soft-on-crime, bleeding heart idealist. The organization that I lead, DC Central Kitchen, is as tough on ex-offenders as anyone. Like Senator Vitter, we don't believe in just handing out food to felons, trusting that society will be better off. Instead of offering punitive measures that foster desperation and hopelessness, however, we enroll ex-offenders in a hard-nosed Culinary Job Training program that demands honesty, sobriety, and punctuality with a zero tolerance policy for lies and laziness.
When we began focusing our training efforts on the District of Columbia's ex-offender population, some thought we were embracing an undeserving population. Maybe these men and women didn't 'deserve' our help, but when we examined several years' worth of data concerning the jobless adults who enrolled in our program, completed it, and found jobs, we found that ex-offenders were our best students. They were more focused and more keenly aware of what awaited them if they didn't stick things out in our hot, crowded kitchen: life on the streets, to be quickly followed by a return trip to the penitentiary. These men and women realized the value of a job and were determined to work their way to a better life.
We used hard facts, not feelings and ideology, when electing to serve ex-offenders--which is why DC Central Kitchen's methods are good for our economy, while Senator Vitter's ideas are all wrong. By the time each class of 25 adults enrolls at DC Central Kitchen, our community has spent, on average, $5 million to incarcerate and supervise these men and women after their release. Without jobs and means of moving forward, most convicts offend again and again--but Senator Vitter never seems to complain about paying those bills. For just $200,000, we can train and find employment for each incoming class, reducing their likelihood of recidivism by 91% and transforming them from taxpayer burdens to taxpayers themselves. A hard-nosed budget hawk like Senator Vitter should appreciate the move from 'liability' to 'asset.'
The people changing their lives in our kitchen rely on SNAP while they're getting back on their feet. Almost all of the violent offenders who have graduated from our program and found employment at DC Central Kitchen at one point received these benefits. Now, none of them do. These are the transformations SNAP is designed to make possible, the dividends it is intended to pay.
The Senator's proposed amendment is designed to do something quite different. It is meant to separate the worthy from the unworthy poor. It is meant to make entitlements conditional upon one's past moral failings. It is meant to exact punitive measures upon low-income minorities. It is meant to deem prison expenses non-negotiable, and dismiss anti-poverty programs as disposable. And it is meant to prove the flawed, circular reasoning that because a person in prison was destined to be there no matter what social supports he had, we should not invest in those supports in the first place.
Even if the Senator's understanding of economics is lacking, he does know a thing or two about forgiveness and redemption. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to believe everyone should have similar access to such things. Senator Vitter, if you're tired of paying for endless handouts of food that seem only to make recipients more dependent, I can relate. If you're truly serious about seeing lasting solutions to hunger and joblessness and holding ex-offenders accountable for their post-release responsibilities, I invite you to walk just a few blocks from the Capitol to our headquarters. We would love to show you what a cost-conscious job creator really looks like.