Before I go further, let me clearly state that Toledo Area Ministries is a terrific organization doing many good things in our community. While they have several outreach programs with records of success, the one I'm most familiar with is "Suitably Attired," a non-profit organization that provides clients with free interview or work appropriate attire. In collaboration with Monroe St. United Methodist Church, they also helped launch "Dress Right," a professional clothing closet for men. I have donated to both programs.
However, having transcribed the questions and answers from this morning's interview, when it comes to the Food Stamp Challenge, I cannot decide if they are pawns in this nationwide publicity stunt to generate emotional support for an increased food stamp funding - or knowing accomplices who didn't expect their data to be challenged and then underestimated the reaction when it was shown to be incorrect. I'd like to believe they are just pawns, but some of their answers indicate that they were well aware of the appeal to emotion in order to influence the national legislation.
They acknowledged that the idea for the local challenge came as a result of an email from FRAC (Food Research and Action Center). When asked about the source of the $21 per day per person amount, which is identified as the average that a person on food stamps receives in benefits, they agreed that it was an average, but said that the actual amount was $23, but "they lowered it...but that's not the point of the challenge."
(Aside: so they knew it was more than $21 but they lowered it by $2 for what reason?)
Fred followed up with a question about what the point was, then, considering that Commissioner Ben Konop said the "point was...to fail." The reply was that the point was "to create empathy with those who do have to be on food stamps, number one, and number two is to call attention to the fact that after people are getting their food stamps we’re still seeing people come in – to the rate of 5-6,000 people a month - into our food pantries for additional assistance."
As for their second point, it is true and valid. Many individuals utilize our local food banks and the food banks, considering our local economy, are seeing more people than in the past as well as a reduction in donations. But, by saying that the point was to generate empathy, they are admitting that the underlying premise is to show this is not only difficult, but nearly impossible...which means that the challenge is designed for failure.
When Fred asked whether or not, then, the $21 was deceptive, they answered that the point with the commissioners was "to show them what they can do to get into action – what they can do with the farm bill at a national level and at a state level..."
So they acknowledge the purpose was to generate support for additional funding in the 2007 Farm Bill, and to enlist the help of the commissioners in doing so.
But just to be sure, Fred clarified the point. "So the bottom line is to get the commissioners involved … to petition the government to raise more money for the food stamp program?"
"Well, it’s not only that," was the answer, "but it’s also ... so they can also pass on what they see locally to the people they know."
So, again, we want the commissioners to prove this incorrect figure of $21 is just not enough and then tell their story to our Congressional representatives. Yes - it's all a well-coordinated national campaign to provide 'evidence' that the food stamp program needs more money.
When Fred asked them how they felt about being involved in program that would try to sway public opinion using lies and dishonesty as this one obviously does, they didn't answer the question.
They did say, "...no ... I don’t ... our motivation for doing this has nothing to do with deception or dishonesty – we’re calling attention to a problem and the problem is our food pantries are running out of food because the need is greater now than it has been and we’re just calling attention that."
In other words, don't question the facts, just look at the motivation...we're trying to do something good. Don't judge this by anything other than our intentions.
Then there is this exchange:
Rev. Anthony: "...we’re not asking for more money for the food stamp program – that’s not the point."
Fred: "Well, that’s what Kevin said just a minute ago – they want the County Commissioners to press the government to put more money into the Farm Bill for the food stamp program…"
Rev. Perrine: "well, yes…"
Fred: "Is that right or not? Did I misstate what you said?"
Rev. Perrine: "no – no you did not. But even though they can become – that’s what we want to do - we want them to be aware that that’s out there…to open their eyes to what’s going on in the community and so they know what they need to do ... so they can call the people that they know to help ..."
So 'they know what they need to do?' I guess the outcome is pre-determined - they are going to fail and then the only option will be to lobby for more money...because if these 'leaders' can't survive, obviously no one else can, either.
Of course, without a good explanation for the faulty and deliberately deceptive $21 amount, and with the entire premise of the challenge being false, they questioned Fred as to his 'empirical data' showing that no one is actually expected to live on just $21 per week. Rev. Anthony then concluding, "I don't accept your premise," and Fred responding, "I could say the same thing to you."
Fred believes they were somewhat duped. And that may be true. I think it's more likely that they understood the purpose was to influence Congress to put more money into the food stamp program, but they really didn't think about the political or public relations ramifications of someone pointing out that this was just a publicity stunt.
And then, when evidence was presented that the $21 amount was intentionally false in order to have more chance of failing the challenge, they did what most do when caught in a similar situation - they issued an emotional appeal to their INTENTIONS, implying that since the motivation was good, we should just overlook the falsities upon which the stunt is based.
Sadly, by not being honest about the intent and the goal of failing, and then asking us to just overlook those things because of the 'need,' they've done more harm than good to their stated intent of bringing attention to the plight of the food banks.
Further, we all know it's very easy to clamor for more money at the government trough. It's much more challenging to successfully identify actual solutions. Someone who truly wants to help the poor would be less concerned with suffering for the sake of suffering and, instead, focused on trying to find innovative ways to live on a meager budget. What the public is going to see from all this is 1) publicity for the Commissioners who 'feel the pain,' 2)a short-term media blip for the local food banks and pantries, and 3) the feeling of being used by a national organization in their own personal lobbying efforts. And that isn't going to do much for our neighbors who, when all is said and done, are still struggling.
We're experiencing a publicity stunt with a goal of failure instead of having meaningful conversations. Where is the discussion of subsidies for ethanol production? They're driving up the price of corn which is used in so many products, thus making those products more expensive and further stretching the budgets of all, but especially the poor. Or discussing recipes and cooking methods to make limited dollars go further. Or how to shop wisely to meet both your budget and your health needs. Or why 40% of eligible people don't enroll in the food stamp program. We're spending tax dollars in an effort to get them into a government dependency instead of learning and celebrating why they're doing okay without one.
I am grateful for the Reverends and the work they do. They agreed to come on the show and to explain the challenge. The Commissioners, however, wouldn't. I think they'd rather say they were 'just responding to the challenge' ... leaving TAM to take the full brunt of the rightful criticism of this publicity stunt. But if our Commissioners were a bit more attentive, they would have asked many of the questions we all have PRIOR to accepting - and the result would have been a more honest and open appeal to the public. But that may be expecting too much of them.
The Reverends are correct, however, that this has brought conversation about the issue into the limelight. I'm just not certain this is the conversation they expected - or the one we need to have.