Speaking up on SNAP – and COVID-19

By Diane Sullivan

In February, what now feels like forever ago, I was invited to testify at a hearing before a U.S. House subcommittee highlighting the impact of a Trump Administration proposal to eliminate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from an estimated 3.1 million recipients, including almost 1 million children.

As a mother who has personal experience with hunger, my presence in the hearing room was unfortunately an anomaly, not unlike what I’m seeing now during the COVID-19 response as policymakers address the crisis without hearing from those directly affected by it.

There’s no shortage of experts able to speak to the harm caused by taking food directly from the mouths of children whose parents struggle to feed them. I might have received this invitation to testify because of the nearly two decades I’ve spent in direct service and social justice advocacy.

More likely it’s my experience as a SNAP recipient that served as my top qualifier to be a witness that day. So many of us with lived experience dedicate our lives to understanding, researching, and overcoming the obstacles that hinder the ability of people with low incomes to consistently access safe, affordable, and nutritious food, yet you just don’t see us in the rooms where decisions are made. My written testimony goes into great detail about how the Trump Administration’s ill-informed proposal to eliminate individual states’ ability to apply broadened categorical eligibility (also called “cat-el”) in SNAP directly impacts my family.

By allowing states to consider households with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, cat-el provides the flexibility to ensure SNAP is reaching those in need, particularly in high cost states like mine. While I was in D.C. to share my personal testimony on how this policy affects my family, I’d gone to our nation’s capital with broader intent.

I remain hopeful that my contribution in that hearing room helps to deliver a deeper message to policymakers and people in low-income communities across this country: all too often—and for far too long—we have been excluded from the conversations around the policies that directly, and often adversely, impact our lives. Our absence from these tables allows others to control the narrative about us.

During the hearing, I was able to directly counter another witness, sitting two seats away, claiming that “these people” all have $20K in assets and fly around in their planes while receiving “welfare.” With every ounce of fight I have in me, I will defend myself, my family, and my community. Yet I can only do that when I’m present.

As I often note, I don’t share my story because it’s easy; I know how some will continue to judge me, even in the face of a pandemic. I share my testimony so publicly because nobody else, even with the best of intentions, can do it for me. After all, aren’t we the most qualified to speak about our own experiences? Imagine trying to solve this COVID-19 crisis without scientists. That’s exactly how trying to solve poverty without us looks.

People with lived experience understand poverty on a subatomic level because we are consistently navigating multiple systems; processing and testing information and impact; gaining and sharing a unique expertise. We are the scientists. If scientists were overlooked in identifying how to prevent and control the spread of this virus, we’d all be rightfully outraged.

The days, weeks, and months ahead will continue to highlight the fragility of our nation’s safety net programs. How our government and local communities respond to the needs of those lacking the recommended resources to weather this storm will determine how we emerge and heal from this global tragedy.

As a start, Congress must ensure that the next iteration of a stimulus package halts all finalizations of the administration’s proposed SNAP rules and that monthly SNAP benefits for every recipient household are increased.

In these unprecedented times of loss and uncertainty, our country must make sure that those in need have access to safe, affordable, and nutritious food. That’s the plea I made to the Congressional subcommittee before this pandemic, and it’s even more important now. 

Diane Sullivan is an anti-poverty and hunger advocate and a consultant with the Income and Work Supports team at CLASP. She is the co-lead of the Boston site of the national group, Witnesses to Hunger—a research and advocacy project of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities in Philadelphia.