Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to serve in Congress, understood the vital role the federal government plays in ensuring that all parents can put food on the table for themselves and their children.
“As long as we have impoverished citizens who cannot get enough to eat, or who cannot afford the kind of food which will provide them with healthy diets, then I do not believe that our national nutrition policy is sufficient,” she testified in a congressional hearing in 1977.
Earlier in her career as a lawmaker, Chisholm helped expand our nation’s Food Stamp program — now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — and helped create the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Thanks to Rep. Chisholm and other tireless advocates, federal food and nutrition assistance programs currently support the health and well-being of tens of millions of people.
Black History Month is an important time to celebrate these and other accomplishments by African Americans. But as February closes, instead of lauding and building on this legacy of support, many federal lawmakers are gearing up to wage an unprecedented attack on it that would leave millions of people hungry.
While concrete proposals have yet to surface, Congressional Republicans, lead by House Speaker Paul Ryan, have floated various reforms to federal food and nutrition programs. Most pressingly, lawmakers are rumored to be considering attaching strict work requirements to SNAP benefits and “block granting” the program.
If implemented, these proposals would sharply increase hunger.
Block granting SNAP would result in massive cuts to assistance and threaten the continued existence of the program. Meanwhile, work requirements do nothing to help connect struggling individuals to work, and merely serve as a mechanism to push people off the rolls.
Attacks on food and nutrition assistance programs will fall hardest on Black Americans.
Attacking SNAP and other nutrition programs means taking the food off the table of tens of millions of low-income families of all races and ethnicities, and undermining the short- and long-term benefits associated with it. But the harm would be felt disproportionately by Black Americans — who make up 25% of SNAP households, and just 13% of the population.
What’s more, these attacks don’t just have racialized consequences — they are often driven by racial animus in the first place. Lawmakers have long peddled tropes of dependency, familial dysfunction, and cultural deficiency as cover to attack public assistance. Food programs have often been in the crosshairs.
Far from being grounded in empirical evidence, though, these myths are often rooted in racial bias. Take, for example, policies like those now under consideration that would impose harsh work requirements on recipients of food assistance. These policies assume that recipients lack a desire to work — a notion that is tied up with misconceptions about who is living in poverty and racialized stereotypes of laziness. It’s no coincidence that similar tropes were used in the 1990’s to justify some of the very same assaults on cash assistance — which tossed hundreds of thousands into severe deprivation.
Racial disparities are driven by our country’s legacy of racism — not individual or cultural deficiencies.
For as long as our country has existed, Black Americans have suffered invidious and devastating forms of racialized disadvantage in virtually every aspect of life — from housing and education segregation, to employment discrimination, to bias in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, and beyond.
The results? Massive gaps in wealth, lack of access to decent jobs, lower wages, worse health outcomes, and, among other things, higher rates of poverty and food insecurity. There are many productive ways to address these persistent disparities through policy reform — but cutting food assistance will only make them worse.
Everyone should have enough food to lead a healthy life.
Unfortunately, Rep. Chisholm’s vision to “identif[y] and alleviat[e] hunger in every part of this country” has yet to be achieved. Over 40 million people in the U.S. still do not have enough food to eat regularly. But federal food assistance programs play a key role in feeding millions and supporting their physical well-being. Attacking these programs is an affront to Chisholm’s legacy — and would leave millions of people hungry.