These kids need to eat: Why the connection between advocacy and direct services matters so much

On October 1, 2011, our state agency charged with administering SNAP benefits (what we used to call Food Stamps) in Kansas announced a new rule that changed the way that they calculate income for mixed-status households (where some in the household are U.S. citizens and some are ineligible nonapplicants (a technical term for immigrants who can’t receive benefits and, so, are not applying for them).

It’s kind of complicated, and it was only through the incredible patience of my good friends at the National Immigration Law Center (whose expertise and willingness to pick up the phone has saved me dozens of times over the past decade) that I understood exactly how it works, but, in essence, it’s this:

Kansas now pretends that undocumented parents don’t need to eat, so we count all of the household’s income, but only count the number of family members who are eligible for food assistance. This makes it much harder for these families to qualify for SNAP, since the eligibility thresholds are based on income per size of household. None of that was really comprehensible from the initial announcement, which had some vaguely patriotic language about restoring equity and fairness to SNAP, a reference to the term “pro-rata share”, which we’d never heard before, and all kinds of assurances that there would be ample training before the new rules went into effect.

And, then, on October 4, 2011, an extremely distraught single mother of 5 children, who had recently built a safe life for her family after years of domestic violence, showed up at El Centro, Inc. with a notice that her children’s SNAP case had been closed due to “non-citizen status.” She had no idea how she was going to feed her kids without that assistance, especially so soon after leaving her abusive husband.

The good news, in this tragic mess?

She knew where to go, not just to receive some immediate assistance–connection to a food pantry, and help getting her kids signed up for school breakfast, and information about congregate meal sites–but also for some answers about why this was happening to her, and for an ally in what she knew needed to be a fight.

And, because it’s an organization that weaves advocacy into its direct services, the social worker with whom she met that day did things a bit differently, perhaps, than would some in a similar situation.

  • She made copies of the letter, because she knew from her advocacy training that USDA prohibits adverse action against eligible beneficiaries because of a nonapplicant’s immigration status, so, at the least, the title of that letter was unacceptable.
  • She asked questions, not just about what the mother intended to do now, but about what the SNAP case worker said (and didn’t), because she knew that USDA also requires disclosure about the voluntary nature of nonapplicants’ immigration information.
  • She got permission to share the mother’s story, not just with agencies for referral purposes, but with Office of Civil Rights investigators, with the organization’s public policy consultant, and with the media. She helped the mother write out her own story and explained how sharing her struggle would connect to future advocacy efforts.
  • She organized a meeting, where mothers who had had the same experience came together, learned about the new policy, and worked together to strategize about what could be done. They made posters to tell immigrants that they are not required to disclose their status if they’re not applying for benefits, and they wrote out their own testimonies, together.
  • She asked for help, reaching out to advocates with connections to national organizations, USDA officials, U.S. senators, influential community leaders. Together, they made a plan, which now includes not only the civil rights investigations but advocacy campaigns with members of Congress, an organized media push, and exploration of possible lawsuits.
  • She utilized radical practice skills to help that first mother, and the ones who poured into her office in the days to follow, understand that, just because the new rule is allowable doesn’t make it acceptable policy. She held their hands and looked into their eyes and said that it’s wrong for our country to allow children to go hungry because we don’t like their parents, and she vowed to work alongside them to make it right.

    It’s an advocacy effort that is far from resolved; indeed, Kansas is just one of the first states to use this allowable option to apply more restrictive income-counting rules to mixed-status families, and they most certainly won’t be the last. It’s a struggle with an uncertain resolution and, in the meantime, children are hungry and mothers are desperate.

    But there are real, concrete ways in which this whole scenario is unfolding in a far more hopeful way than it could have, and it’s because of the existence of an organization that believes that direct services make advocacy more authentic and more effective, and that only advocacy and organizing can provide a context in which direct services can succeed. One serves as a vehicle through which to collect the stories, document the evidence, and mobilize those affected. The other deploys those considerable resources in a strategy designed to bring lasting change.

    Their coexistence ensures that direct services never become about placating an oppressed community, and that advocacy never forgets its reason for being.

    These kids need to eat.

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