Last year, I participated in AVODAH’s Jewish Service Corps in New York City, engaging in antipoverty work, leadership development, and communal living with my fellow corps members. AVODAH placed me with the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), where I advocated for people who had been wrongfully denied public assistance and food stamps.
Throughout the year, I witnessed the remarkable resilience of my clients, and they remain at the forefront of my mind today.
One of the women I worked with owned a single bar of soap, and she used it to wash her dishes, clothing, children, and herself. Another client had to spend her last ten dollars to buy diapers for her daughter, but that meant she couldn’t afford the $2.50 subway ride to see her doctor and get treatment for her chronic seizures. A different client lived three miles away from the nearest food pantry, and she walked there in the winter three times a week, while pregnant, after the food stamps ran out.
These stories may seem extreme, but they are hardly unique. In New York City, 31 percent of children live below the poverty line. In a city of just over 8 million people, 1.9 million must turn to food stamps. It is not surprising that so many New Yorkers need nutrition assistance as 45 percent of people in NYC live below 150 percent of the poverty line, which translates to less than $35,775 a year for a family of four. For far too many in our city, access to food, housing, and healthcare is a daily struggle and never a certainty.
I finished my AVODAH service in July, but these individuals continue to face crises on multiple fronts. Some have cancer and cannot afford to go to the doctor. Many face eviction. Most skip meals to feed their children. Nearly all have no computer or access to the Internet.
In my work with NYLAG, I learned first-hand that public assistance is often critical to a family’s survival. I saw that a $215 monthly rental subsidy could avert a person’s pending eviction and that $347 a month in food stamps could allow a mother and her daughter to start eating healthy meals together. What at first seemed like modest amounts made noticeable differences in people’s lives.
At the same time, it quickly became obvious that our system of public benefits is hardly enough and needs fixing. Who can find an apartment in NYC for $215? How can a mother and her child afford enough food with $347 a month, $11 a day? What are we trying to accomplish by providing people with public benefits that are hardly enough to get by?
We use many metaphors to justify public benefits, recalling the importance of safety nets and the need for ladders out of poverty. But the metaphor most appropriate to me is that people need a floor beneath their feet. How can families start climbing the ladder of social mobility when they have no solid floor to stand on, when they are free falling through an abyss?
For public benefits to meet their goals, they should ensure that every American has access to the basic goods and services they need to survive. They should be sufficient so that families can afford adequate housing, nutrition, healthcare, and education – the primary prerequisites for family stability and mobility.
To be sure, one of the goals of public assistance should be to help those who can work find jobs. My clients who can work desperately want stable employment because they know that a reliable income offers them the best chance to provide for their families. But a parent who spends half his week in housing court, or who cannot afford child care, or who has to race between the doctor’s office and a welfare appointment, faces significant barriers to finding a job. Public assistance can provide the stability people need to pursue regular work. Cuts to social welfare programs may improve short-term budgets, but they inflict great costs on society by exacerbating the instability of people living on the brink in this country.
It is appalling that our neighbors, people living in our same zip code, might have a single bar of soap or skip meals to feed their children. Providing for people’s basic needs is both just and good public policy. We cannot let people in our midst starve or go homeless, and offering basic stability makes it easier for people to find reliable employment if they are able.
Our democratic principles and economic justice are indivisible. If we truly believe that all people are equal and deserve the same rights and opportunities, then we must ensure that every American has an open path towards a noble wellbeing.