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Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced plans to cut SNAP benefits that could drive millions further into poverty. Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign and Karen Dolan of IPS join us to discuss the implications.

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us once again.

As many of you probably know, the Trump administration just announced new and extremely restrictive regulations for SNAP food stamps. When you hear these words from Secretary of Agriculture Perdue, you feel like you’re in some time warp with Reagan or Clinton.

SONNY PERDUE: Yeah, the original 1996 Welfare Reform allowed for three months 120 days for able-bodied adults without dependents. We’re going back to the original Congressional intent. That’s what the administration is supposed to do, look at the original congressional intent and go back there. We’re eliminating those waivers except for those people who are naturally exempt.

MARC STEINER: This drastic cut could affect millions of American lives. Some see this as a new opening of the war on the poor in our country and we’ll spend time exploring what just happened, what that means and how the fight will take up against it and how we can change that.

Karen Dolan is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and Project Director there, author of Criminalization of Race and Poverty. And the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis is Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at the Union Theological Seminary and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. She’s also an ordained Presbyterian minister and author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor. She’s been organizing among the poor and the homeless for a quarter of a century. Liz and Karen, welcome. Good to have you with us.

KAREN DOLAN: Good to be here.

LIZ THEOHARIS: Thank you so much, Marc. I’m glad to be here.

MARC STEINER: So let me just begin with Karen; I’ll start with you this time. To begin with, what just happened? This announcement, what Perdue said, what this administration is doing: what’s the politics behind this and what are we witnessing here?

KAREN DOLAN: Well, what just happened is that nearly a million people are being thrown into worse misery. What was announced is going to affect starting April 1st, almost a million people, 700,000 people by the administration’s own estimates of people that already exist on an average of less than $2,200 a year. We’re talking about taking food away from extremely poor people. This is a tightening of regulations, taking away the rights of States to waive very strict rules that say that adults who are able-bodied by some definitions and who don’t have children to care for, they are allowed currently just three months of food assistance in a three-month year period. However, States historically have been able to waive that time limit in times of economic distress, and what the administration has just done is taken away the ability of the States to waive those time limits. It’s taken away the ability of States to be able to respond to the dire need of the people who live there.

MARC STEINER: When I was reading, Liz, this morning the Urban Institute report put out a report called the Estimated Effect of Recent Proposed Changes to SNAP Regulations. And in that report, one of the things they talk about here… And we often use the 700,000 number because it’s the base number. But they were saying that it’ll mean 3.7 million fewer people in 2.1 million fewer households would receive benefits in any given month. That’s huge. I mean what would be the literal effect on poor families in this country, and poor working families I might add?

KAREN DOLAN: Well that’s right. And that number takes into account three proposed rules changes from the administration. There were two prior ones that haven’t been finalized yet, but that will be finalized in the coming year, in the first part of 2020, despite public comment, which is allowed whenever the administration tries to do rules changes. They have to have a justification. They have to then open up these proposed changes to professional and stakeholder and public comments and they are supposed to take those into account and scale back or change or revoke these rules; all three of these rule changes that would result, as you say, in restricting millions of people’s access to food stamps beyond the 700,000 that are going into effect in April.

The overall effect of that is going to affect also parents. It’s going to affect people with disabilities. It’s going to affect children’s access to free and reduced lunches. All of that is coming down the pike. Of course, the supposed the justification is to stop fraud, which doesn’t exist in a significant level in the access to food assistance program. It’s addressing a non-existent problem, and the further justification given is to promote work when all this really does is to promote misery. People who are on food stamps, already overwhelmingly more than two-thirds of them already work. We’re talking about people who are in situations where they’re in deep poverty, or they may be in places where there’s no access to public transportation where they may not have a high school education. It’s being painted in a broad brush with unemployment figures that are national rather than those that are local.

MARC STEINER: But one of the things that’s shocking about this–before I really get into how this is going to be fought and what’s going on and what the battle will be–when they attempted before to put this in the Ag Bill, these restrictive measures, it was stopped. Democrats were all against it. Even a bunch of Republicans were against it. I mean, what’s the political push here now? Why is this happening at this moment?

KAREN DOLAN: Well, I can also switch this over to Liz in a minute. Because really what’s behind this is the attempt to take away the safety net. It’s further demonization of poor people. It comes from this trope that poor people are at fault and are to blame for their own poverty rather than seeing it as a structural problem. We’re making that poverty worse, and the attempt is to whittle down the safety net altogether. The Congress has not approved of this, as you have mentioned, and there’s been bipartisan opposition to this.

SNAP is an extremely effective social safety net program. It has a ripple effect out to the economy where it benefits people who aren’t even on food stamps, so it’s extremely effective. It’s very resilient in times of a recession, times of hardships. It’s one of the best programs we have. By attacking this, you’re really attacking the foundation of the social safety net and the brutal reality behind it is to demonize poor people as being lazy, to promote a false narrative that people who are poor, are poor by their own character faults that they’re not working in. All of these things are falsehoods. And the Poor People’s Campaign that Reverend Liz co-chairs and that the Institute for Policy Studies works on as well, is countering that narrative with the truth of the structural causes of poverty; this very attempt by the administration to further erode the safety net is one of the very structural features that is exacerbating poverty.

MARC STEINER: Since you raised this, Karen; Liz, let’s talk a bit about the Poor People’s Campaign for this moment and what will be the response. I mean, how do you organize and fight against this? How do you stop this from happening?

LIZ THEOHARIS: I mean, I think what the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has been doing for some years now… And this is based on decades of grassroots organizing led by people who are on SNAP, who are poor, who are without insurance, who are homeless. Poor people ourselves, as well as moral leaders and activists and advocates, have said that we have to come together in a time like this when there’s all this division, when 140 million people are poor or low income, when every safety net that that exists is under attack whether they’re trying to attach work requirements, whether they’re trying to put these tighter restrictions and for sure falling into this narrative of blaming individual people, individual families for what really is a structural problem.

What we have to do is organize, organize, organize. Right now the Poor People’s Campaign is on a 25-state tour where we’re mobilizing, organizing, registering people, and educating people for a movement, a movement that votes, that protests, that sings, that educates, that is building a grassroots from the ground up, led by those most impacted by these issues, a movement. We’re going to come to Washington D.C. on June 20th, 2020 for a massive Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington. That will happen where the voice is, the stories, but then also, especially the solutions, the fact that this doesn’t have to be this way, that the kind of resources that this nation has, we could do and we could end child hunger tomorrow. We can end family poverty in a week. None of this has to happen. It’s just right now, we have a scarcity of political will and an attack on the poor that’s happening.

MARC STEINER: You know I read a piece the other day about how almost half of all Americans make $18,000 or less a year and, and there’s growing number of people in this country who are struggling just to survive. As we close this out, just to hear from the two of you, what does it take to organize this in a really mass political way? Because people who are divided on all kinds of issues really can come together on this and fight together around issues around poverty and ending poverty in America. How do you see that happening? How do you both see that happening? What has to be done? Let’s start from the policy side and then go back to Liz and then we’ll close out.

KAREN DOLAN: Sure. Thanks, Marc. That’s a great question. I think that one of the things that we’re trying to do first is to really get into the public … in front of the public, the reality that there is nearly 140 million people of us who are poor and, or low income who are struggling just to make ends meet, who are very close to falling into poverty if we’re not already into poverty. The first thing is to tell the truth, to tell the truth about what the reality is and to put behind that the … to put out our solutions and the facts and the figures that we have in the Moral Budget. This is a document that the Poor People’s Campaign and the Institute for Policy Studies and Kairos Center have produced that tells the truth and tells the numbers and tells the stories that we’re not hearing if we listen to the administration.

So really, truth telling is one thing, and when we realize that we’re all in this together and we understand that all of us, that so many of us nearly half of us are teetering on the edge that makes it easier across to come together and to reject this false notion that this is an individual fault of people but rather that it’s a structural problem and it’s a lack of political will, as Liz said. Then we feel empowered to be able to change that will. It’s something that we can do. This is the wealthiest nation in the country.
In our Moral Budget, we have solutions. We have solutions such as fair taxation, cutting the military budget, not subsidizing fossil fuels, creating clean energy jobs. There’s many things that we can do in this wealthiest nation on earth. There’s no excuse for there to be poverty. The first thing we have to do is really tell the truth, get out on the streets and join the Poor People’s Campaign.

MARC STEINER: Liz Theoharis?

LIZ THEOHARIS: What’s happening right now is that people from all different walks of life are coming together and they’re seeing the connection that they have to this problem, whether it’s they’re living in Lawrence County, Alabama, where there’s no sanitation systems or Chicago, Illinois, where the teachers went out on strike, not just for their working conditions but for the homelessness of the kids going to the schools that they teach in. People are in motion. And what we’re finding in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is that this is something that is uniting people, and it’s uniting people across race, across geography, across political party, across religion. When people organize together, make noise together, put out solutions together, then more people come forward.

We have to pose this problem that it’s actually costing this nation more to cut people off of food programs, to criminalize people, to deny folks healthcare, to subsidize corporations that pay way less than a living wage. It’s actually costing us more than it would be to solve all of those problems. When you organize people who are impacted, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “Those in pain know when their pain is relieved,” and so that’s exactly what’s happening. I mean, thousands of people all across the country. We’re organized in 43 States, and yesterday we launched the registration for the June 20th, 2020 Massive Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington. We are organizing up until that point that will just be one moment for a bigger movement that’s growing but one that is having people come forward and say, “We want to be in the numbers. We want to impact our lives, our communities and this nation for the better and make it a place that we want to be a part of.”

MARC STEINER: Well Liz Theoharis, as someone who is a veteran of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, I’m really overwhelmingly cheered to see this movement rising and taking a hold, and so we’ll be doing a lot of talk together between now and June 20th to talk to America about what’s going to be happening today and why we should all be involved. I want to thank you both, Liz Theoharis and Karen Dolan. It’s been great conversation. Thank you both for being with us and thanks for the work that you do to make our society a more just place.

KAREN DOLAN: Thanks so much.

LIZ THEOHARIS: Thank you so much, Marc.

MARC STEINER: I’m Marc standing here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. And we will be putting a lot of attention on this Poor People’s Campaign and the fight leading up to June the 20th. Take care. We’ll talk soon.

Studio: Will Arenas, Bababtunde Ogunfolaju
Production: Genevieve Montinar, Bababtunde Ogunfolaju

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Karen Dolan is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Karen holds an M.A. in Philosophy and Social Policy from the American University in Washington D.C. Karen joined IPS in 1996; Karen’s public scholarship and activism at IPS has linked community-led organizations with policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels. The focus of her work is on anti-poverty issues, local democracy/empowerment, and peace. Karen currently coordinates the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, edited by NYT Best-Selling Author Barbara Ehrenreich, which focuses on telling the stories of widespread economic hardship in the U.S. Some of Karen’s publications include: Battered By The Storm: How the Safety Net is Failing Americans and How to Fix it, Our Communities are Not for Sale; Paying the Price: the Mounting Costs of War in Iraq, Unleash Democracy in Mandate for Change, and Foreign Policy Goes Local. Karen blogs for Huffington Post and regularly appears in other media outlets. Karen serves on the boards of: The Participatory Budgeting Project and Jobs With Justice Worker Rights Board.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is the Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. An ordained Presbyterian pastor and author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said About the Poor, she has organized among the poor and homeless for 25 years.