From Food Stamps to the Mayor’s Office

Earlier this year a constituent asked me if I’d take the SNAP Challenge: Celebrities and elected officials eat only as much food as they can buy with a food stamp allowance. I told him, flatly, no. While others have taken the challenge to bring attention to the hardships of the working poor, I don’t need to take the challenge — because I lived it.

Unfortunately, my family’s story is all too common. Millions of Americans live on the edge of poverty. One traumatic event — a layoff, divorce, or medical emergency — occurs, and a family can struggle for years.

That’s why Congressional Republicans’ vote to drastically reduce the SNAP program is so personally offensive. Last week they voted to slash $40 billion from the program over the next 10 years and cut support for nearly 4 million of our poorest. This plan would consign millions to lives of poverty and misery. It is inexcusable and un-American, and they should be ashamed.

Our representatives constantly hear anecdotes about the small percentage of folks who take advantage of the system. I believe they need to hear from more families like mine — families that have fallen to their knees and needed only a hand to rise up again. Perhaps if we speak up, we can change the hearts of our Congressional Republican leadership.

I was raised by a wonderful mother in a family with a lot of love, but we were very poor. Like most families on food stamps, we were pushed into poverty by personal tragedy and bad luck. My father was a drug addict, and his disease drove us at times into homelessness. We spent weeks and months in homeless shelters. My mom always had at least one job — often two or three. But, at minimum wage, and with four growing children to support, we sometimes ran out of food.

Opponents of SNAP insist on perpetuating the myth that people live in poverty by choice because they’re too lazy to work. The opposite is true. Like my mother, most SNAP recipients want to provide for their families. More than 80 percent of SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult were employed in the year before or after receiving SNAP.

But five years after the Great Recession, the economy is adding just enough jobs per month to keep pace with population growth, and there are still three unemployed workers for every job opening. As a result, 1 in 7 American households use or have used SNAP benefits.

Critics also suggest that SNAP, with an average benefit of less than $1.40 per person per meal, is so lavish that it leads to dependence and complacency. It’s hard not to get angry when I hear that, particularly from politicians who have never experienced poverty.

When the cupboards are bare, the children are hungry, and the next paycheck is still a week away, the ability to buy milk, cheese, and bread is cause for celebration. My family will be forever grateful for the help. Without SNAP, I would not have been able to go to school, complete my homework, or fall asleep.

My personal success — attending an Ivy League university and becoming the youngest mayor in Ithaca’s history — is owed as much to the assistance I received from complete strangers as to my own effort. Yes, I pulled hard at my own bootstraps, holding three part-time jobs as a full-time student. But I was also the recipient of federal loans, state grants, and scholarships given by alumni, whom I never met and probably never will.

I work every day so that moms in my city don’t have to worry about how they’re going to feed their children. I don’t want a single child to be so distracted by the growl in their stomachs that they can’t focus on their math homework.

Samuel Johnson said, “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.” By that standard, Congress has failed so far. But I haven’t given up hope. I’ve decided to share my story because I believe that Congress still has the capacity to do the right thing. But they need to hear from us.

That attitude may make me a hopeless optimist. But after what my family has gone through, I’ve come to believe that in America, the fulfillment of any dream, no matter how improbable, is possible. Even the dream of compromise and compassion in Washington.

Svante Myrick is the mayor of Ithaca, NY. In 2011, at the age of 24, he was elected as the youngest mayor in the city’s history and is the first person of color to hold that office.