Newark Mayor Cory Booker recently announced that he will spend the week of December 4th living on food stamps. He will join the ranks of many others, such as celebrities and college students, who are undertaking a food stamp challenge. As Professor Noliwe M. Rooks explained in an opinion piece in Time, however, there is a problem with such challenges.
These experiments are designed to make politicians and the general public more sensitive to the difficulties of living on $4.00 per day, the amount that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides to the almost 46 million people who currently receive benefits…Proving that those who are wealthy, middle class or famous can live on $4.00 per day may increase empathy, but it will do little to actually help those who need the program most.
In the meantime, there is little public conversation about actually raising the dollar amount that the SNAP provides. To explain this, Rooks cites survey research conducted by the Pew Research Center. In the poll, 59% of respondents said the government should provide food and housing to all citizens. Yet, 71% thought the poor were too dependent on this type of assistance, and 52% said support should not be increased if it will increase the deficit. Americans are, in general, deeply ambivalent about the role of government assistance.
But, Rooks argues that this assistance is much needed. One in five people surveyed in a recent Gallop poll said they could not always afford to feed their entire family, and more Americans struggled to afford food in 2011 than in any other year since the financial crisis. Between 1996 and 2011, SNAP reduced the number of extremely poor children in the United States by 50%. To Rooks, an increase in the amount of support offered by the SNAP program would have an even larger impact.
Those who have taken up the SNAP challenge and chronicled their experiences all say that they were tired, couldn’t focus, and were distracted by hunger. Once their week was over, their lives got right back to normal. We can only hope that Cory Booker and others who take up such experiments will become advocates to help raise others out of poverty and not just spend a week walking in their shoes.