Hunger and Poverty on the Rise

Rebecca talks to Joel Berg of Hunger Free America about rising hunger and poverty in the U.S. as the pandemic drags on, the recent federal court ruling striking down Trump’s SNAP cuts, and more. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

As we head into perhaps the highest stakes election of any of our lifetimes, poverty and hunger are rising dramatically as the pandemic drags on, as the aid authorized by Congress has largely run out. Eight million more people are now living below the federal poverty line since May, according to a new study from researchers at a Columbia University. Meanwhile, in a rare piece of good news, this past Sunday a federal court (again) struck down the Trump administration’s cruelty-is-the-point rule that — had Congress not stepped in — have taken food assistance away from 700,000+ Americans in the middle of the pandemic. And with less than 2 weeks to go until Election Day, a new poll indicates the 2020 election may see record turnout among low-income voters.

To kick off a series of conversations looking at where things stand for workers and families 7 months into the pandemic — Rebecca talks with Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, and author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America.

This week’s guest:

  • Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America

For more on the stuff in this week’s pod:


♪ I work and get paid like minimum wage

Sights to hit the clock by the end of the day

Hot from downtown into the hood where I slave

The only place I can afford ’cause my block ain’t safe

I spend most of my time working, tryna bring in the dough…. ♪

REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas.

As we head into the seventh — is it the seventh month? What is time anymore? — of the COVID pandemic, and perhaps one of the highest-stakes elections of any of our lifetimes, just as a side note, poverty researchers warn that the number of people living in poverty in the U.S. is now dramatically higher than it was pre-pandemic as the aid authorized by the CARES Act has largely run out with little, if any, clarity on when a next aid package will ever make it over the finish line in Congress. Meanwhile, in a rare piece of good news that largely got buried amid this wild, election-focused news cycle, this past Sunday, a federal court issued a long-awaited decision (once again) striking down the Trump administration’s cruelty-is-the-point rule that, had Congress not halted it earlier this year, would’ve taken SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, away from upwards of 700,000 jobless workers amid the COVID pandemic.

So, we at Off-Kilter thought it was worth taking a step back and taking stock of how families are faring as the pandemic drags on, the significance of that court ruling on food assistance, and the policies advocates, experts, and struggling families are urging Congress to include in a next aid package to reverse poverty’s harrowing rise and ensure families have what they need to avoid widespread hunger and hardship in the months ahead.

To help kick things off with this week’s episode, and I’m sure we’ll have a few more in the coming weeks, I’m thrilled to get the chance to talk to my good friend and colleague, Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America and author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America. Joel, thanks so much for taking the time to come back on the show. It’s been a while since we talked.

JOEL BERG: It is great. I always love talking about knee-length, non-bifurcated skirt with pleats at the back from Scotland. This is a Off-Kilter, the Off-Kilt Show, right?

VALLAS: I think we had a booking error! It’s happened before. [chuckles]

BERG: OK. No. Oh, Off-Kilter about poverty, hunger. It makes more sense. Good to see you.

VALLAS: One of these times over to kill you for doing that every single time. And I forget every time that you’re going to do that to me. But we’ll move on. We’ll move on. So, Joel —

BERG: It’s a different ridiculous joke each time, though.

VALLAS: Well, yeah. But somehow you always catch me off guard, and it’s always a pun. So, shame on me for not seeing it this time. So, Joel, I was talking a little bit with you in particular about this Supreme Court, or not Supreme Court — well, maybe we’ll get there. We hope we don’t get there — but this federal court ruling on food assistance. But before we get into that and really dig in, because I know a lot of folks are wondering, what does it mean, it feels like the place we have to start is really, as I mentioned, by doing a little bit of a check on where are we with how people are doing. We’re obviously very focused on this election. The media are almost singularly focused on the election, as would be expected in a moment like this and with the stakes, what they are on November 3rd. But there doesn’t seem to be quite as much attention as maybe there should be on the fact that poverty is skyrocketing. And it’s not a surprise why. It’s because there just isn’t enough aid to help people keep afloat right now as this pandemic is dragging on.

So, I realize I’m sort of asking you what seems like a little bit of a silly question, because people are probably going duh, poverty’s rising. But given that it isn’t getting nearly enough attention or really sophisticated analysis, talk to me a little bit about what we know about how and why poverty is now rising, after the aid that we initially did authorize through Congress so dramatically kept people out of poverty for at least a little while.

BERG: Well, let me give you the least sophisticated analysis I can. You will agree that the single defining feature of poverty is people having less money, right?

VALLAS: I will.

BERG: So, if you give them more money, they’re less poor. And if you take away money, they’re more poor. How’s that?

VALLAS: I’d say I think you summed it up, and this was a really short episode.

BERG: OK, we’re done. Now, what was I talking about: the Scottish Highlands and kilts. No.

So, just like there are people who are paid a lot of money from the fossil fuel industry to make up the idea that we don’t know whether climate change is really happening, and if it is happening, we don’t know whether it’s really human made. And if it is, we don’t know what will solve it. People are paid a lot of money from the right to pretend we don’t really know the extent of hunger and poverty in America. And if we do, we don’t really know what causes it. And therefore, we don’t know what solves it. That is all bunk, bs, some might say malarkey, but I would not. Because I don’t take sides in campaigns in my nonpartisan nonprofit group, as you guys don’t either. But it’s just ridiculous. It’s not true.

We know exactly what causes poverty: that poor people have less money. And when there are programs that help raise the amounts of money they have, preferably for able-bodied people raising their wages or reducing their costs, making housing more affordable and healthcare free and child care more affordable and yes, food more affordable, their poverty goes down. And so, we way overcomplicate this stuff. And people were doing these sophisticated academic reports when the federal government gave all this money away, and it helped. Well, why, yes. It does. And everyone except the rich understands that when struggling people get more help paying for food or paying for rent, they’re less struggling.

And so, we had a huge hunger crisis in 2019 when the economy was still, at least on paper, in great shape. There were I think 37 million Americans who were food insecure, over 10 million American children food insecure. That’s a fancy wonkish term, meaning they couldn’t always afford enough food. And I said to anyone who would listen — as well as to many people who wouldn’t listen, but I’d say it anyway — if we had this massive problem when the economy’s still in great shape on paper because we have such fundamental structural inequality and because wages are so much lower than costs and because we’re a barbaric country that doesn’t provide universal healthcare, if we had this problem in 2019, imagine what’s going to happen when we inevitably have a recession. And I hate to say I was Chicken Little, and Chicken Little was eventually right. But that’s what happened, although even I didn’t imagine it would be this deep in this horrific. And I certainly didn’t know, as no one knew, that it would be tied to a health crisis.

But so, you had tens of millions of Americans who couldn’t afford enough food in good times. Then the economy collapsed. And we forget the severity and rapidity of the collapse, for you wonks out there and for your Off-Kilter listeners, many of you are wonks. You know that in the Depression, the stock market crash originally was in 1929, but unemployment didn’t peak till 1933. So, the decline in unemployment was over four years. This year, the decline in unemployment almost as great as the original decline in the Depression happened over a few weeks. So, it was the most rapid decline in employment at any time in American history, bar none. So, you had that.

And people lost jobs, and then you had people tenuously having jobs who went from full-time to part-time. You had millions of people in the gig economy who got fewer jobs. If they were driving Ubers or Lyfts, they got fewer rides. You had people in the tipped economy who were getting no or fewer tips. So, you had absolute collapse of income, mostly for lower-income people already. Then you had 29 million kids getting school lunch on a daily basis, free or reduced-price school lunch, most of them not getting that. You had about half that number getting school breakfast. Many of those no longer getting school breakfast. You had hundreds of thousands of people around the country getting food from soup kitchens and food pantries. A large number of them closed. And even though the safety net is 15 times the dollar amount of food that the charities distribute, we saw that when food prices went up under this pandemic, not only did people have less money for food, less purchasing power for food with their wages, with their SNAP benefits, but also, they had less purchasing power at soup kitchens and food pantries.

So, I know it’s a cliché these days to say it was a perfect storm, but it was a perfect storm. And now what you’re seeing is the most unequal, I wouldn’t even say recovery, oddity in our economy ever in history, that the people at the top, there is no recession. At the very top, there is no recession. And people in tech, in finance, maybe no recession at all anymore. And that you see people at the lower end of the scale and particularly low-income working people really in 1930s Depression-like levels.

And why I’m giving this long answer is because this relates to the politics of it and the newsworthy of it, newsworthy-ness of it. When the elites are worried — and they were worried in the beginning that they would lose money, they would lose their jobs — you see a boatload of media attention on it. Because editors and publishers and network owners are in the elite. And so, when they’re worried, they tell their staff to focus on this more. And you saw that after 2008 economic collapse. And you see it now, that there’s this immediate burst of attention. There’s a immediate burst of media attention, immediate push for government to do something. And then when the elites are better off, when they and their social set are feeling a little more comfortable, magically it comes out of the media spotlight. And when it comes out of the media spotlight, it gets less attention by our elected officials. Although we are recording this the day after the third, well, actually the second and last presidential debate — the third scheduled presidential debate, the second actual presidential debate — and hunger came up a number of times. So, that was comforting. But that’s, I think, why our political system hasn’t responded more thoroughly to this.

VALLAS: Well, and there’s so much more to dig into there. So, let’s take that apart in a few pieces. Let’s start with maybe just some of the numbers. I referenced poverty researchers. You, I think, appropriately note that not all poverty researchers are created equal. And that’s worth noting, given that a lot of folks who pass themselves off that way are actually the people who are more like poverty deniers, who you —

BERG: Although we note some of our best friends are poverty researchers.

VALLAS: Some of our best friends are poverty researchers. But also there are those —

BERG: You and I are too.

VALLAS: I’m trying to make the point that they’re not all created equal, Joel! I agree. There are good ones.

BERG: Oh, OK. Yes.

VALLAS: But you’re correct that there are some who call themselves that and who are actually trying to use the numbers in deceiving ways to make it seem as though we don’t really have poverty in this country. And then that stuff trickles up to, say, Bill O’Reilly, who’ll deny that child hunger exists in the U.S. on air, right? Which actually did once happen. But —

BERG: And I must say, right, and he challenged anyone to prove him otherwise. I immediately got a hungry parent to agree to go on air, immediately contacted his producers. And they said they’d definitely have us on and then made weeks of excuses why it never happened. But that’s a good example. As well as the Heritage Foundation used to publish things that because low-income people have answering machines, they’re not really poor. And now it’s oh, they have cell phones, so they’re not really poor, or smartphones. But yes, that is a cottage industry of the right to deny this is a real thing.

VALLAS: And so important to bring up, right? Because important, I think, to make the distinction between the kinds of analysis that really does actually look at what it takes to, say, afford basic living standards versus the kind of stuff that is used to deny that it exists.

But I want to bring up some poverty researchers who are our friends, who are the kind of people who do the research that actually helps shed light on the issues rather than pretend that poverty’s not really an issue in the U.S. And those include some Columbia University researchers who actually produced one of the studies I was referring to up top. And their analysis looking at the trends in poverty throughout this year, going back to March and April — which feels like a lot of lifetimes ago, but was indeed actually earlier this year — those Columbia researchers found that at its peak in May, the CARES Act kept more than 18 million people from poverty. That’s the federal definition of poverty, which you and I both agree is not quite adequate to measure what it actually takes to have a basic standard of living. But it is one measure. But they found that by September, the number of people who were being kept out of poverty by the CARES Act had fallen from 18 million at the high to just 4 million by September. And now, as we’re actually thinking about, so, what does that mean for how many more poor people we have in this country using, yes, that inadequate, but at least something federal measure of poverty? They find that the number of people living below the federal poverty line in the U.S. has now grown by 8 million since May.

So, just take all of that in for a second, I say to our listeners, as we think about how policy choices really can make a difference in how much people have an income and how poor people are, exactly as you were saying, Joel, right? I mean, this stuff is kind of duh, but also, it really is worth actually illustrating when we have this kind of research that is so incredibly clear and stark. But this research also shows us how inadequate the amount of aid that was extended was to the problem it’s seeking to address. And just to the extent that there are still debates going on where there are actually people in Congress — who all do belong to one political party, not the other. You can guess which — who are still trying to say, “Hey, we already did that. We did that aid thing.” Or, “Maybe we should wait and see to see how much more aid we might need, if any, and whether we did enough.” These kinds of numbers paint an incredibly stark picture to help us see that no, what we need to be doing is actually coming back to the table months ago, but hopefully tomorrow, and actually pushing something through to help millions of families avoid what now are third-world levels of hunger and evictions by the millions, among many other kinds of long-term consequences that will stem from inaction.

BERG: If you wanted to turn water into ice, and you put water in your freezer and it turned to ice, you wouldn’t conclude that if you take it out, it’ll just be great ice, right? And not to oversimplify this stuff. But there also is a relationship to COVID and the denial over the science of COVID. We know that when we take a certain number of public health actions, when we test and then isolate people who are positive, when we quarantine people who’ve been exposed, when we wear masks, when we social distance, COVID goes down. And then, for some parts of this country who absolutely ignored all that science, and then COVID spiked, they said, “Oh! [laughs] This didn’t matter. This didn’t work.” Well, yes, it did! In the places they did this all, there’s far less COVID-19.

The same is for poverty and economic support. If you give a lot of money when people are in massive distress, due to no fault of their own, and then they’re in less economic stress because of that, and then you take, you don’t conclude, “Oh, they don’t need it anymore,” just like the water still needs the freezer to be ice, you conclude, “Let’s keep it until the problem is solved.” And that’s absolutely not what we did. We set arbitrary limits for when somebody thought this would all be fixed instead of putting in economic stabilizers that really track to economic conditions in real time to determine whether people really needed this help.

So, to paraphrase Woody Allen in his pre-MeToo horrible days, he said, you know, “I don’t like this restaurant. You know, its food’s bad, and its portions are too small.” That the federal aid was too small and too time-limited. But it was big enough that you could definitely track that it dramatically reduced the poverty and hunger and homelessness that we would’ve had without it. But it wasn’t nearly enough, and it certainly ended far too quickly.

VALLAS: And I want to give a shout out to Claudia Sahm, as you mentioned, automatic stabilizers, which is such an important part of this conversation and so much of the unforced error that Congress made in making this stream of aid time-limited with arbitrary time limits as you note, Claudia Sahm, very much worth a listen, the episode we did with her just a little while back on automatic stabilizers, given that she was the godmother of what has now been called the Sahm Rule, which would establish automatic stabilizers in unemployment insurance and other programs using her methodology for tracking recessions and economic conditions. Well worth a listen if folks are looking for more on automatic stabilizers and how we could have responded but did not.

Coming back to some of the numbers and some of what these new studies are telling us —

BERG: [inaudible] We didn’t respond for poor people. Corporate agri-businesses got tens of billions of dollars.

VALLAS: No, that’s exactly right. And Joel, that’s a really, really, I think, important and appropriate response, as we remember who got prioritized in the packages that did happen. So, touche. Very, very important to add in. I want to throw a few more numbers in there, as we’re doing some of this taking stock, because the racial disparities are absolutely essential to note. The overall numbers I was listing of poverty skyrocketing are not being experienced equally when it comes to race. Black people and Latinos are more than twice as likely as white people to be poor in these new trends, according to the new pandemic-era data. That maybe should not be surprising, not just because of pre-existing racial disparities in poverty and in income instability, but also because both groups disproportionately hold jobs in sectors that have been incredibly hard hit by this recession. And so, just to connect a few of those dots there as well.

Also, where people live can play a real role here, given the differential response by states because of the patchwork of aid that we have. I also want to note that child poverty is rising at an incredibly high rate as well: an additional 2.5 million children living below the poverty line today since May.

BERG: The lazy bastards.

VALLAS: [belly laugh] But incredibly important to note, right? Because even short exposure to poverty, we know from other research, can cause lasting negative consequences for children well into adulthood. So, really, really important to note.

Now Joel, I also mentioned hunger. And I said sort of in a flow of numbers before that hunger in the U.S. has reached third-world levels. People might be hearing that and going, you know, that sounds kind of hyperbolic. Well, it’s not! And the number I’m actually referring to here — you probably are on top of much more recent data than this, given that it came from the summer — but as of this summer, the Federal Reserve, through surveys, was telling us that one in three families with children were reporting, even months ago, months ago — this was the summer — that they could no longer afford adequate food. One in three families with children. Talk to me, Joel, about what did and didn’t happen with food assistance as part of the response to the pandemic. There has been, I think, a lot of confusion in the public and also in the media on what this administration has done and what Congress has done when it comes to food assistance. And that obviously, will take us into talking about Sunday’s federal court ruling. But I’d love to start with the congressional response.

BERG: Yeah, before I get into that, let me just say a few words, if I might, about the racial disparities. Because I think that’s just absolutely critical. It relates directly to the sickness rates and the death rates from COVID. Two things are true. They were true before the pandemic; they’re true now. The largest number of people in America who are hungry, who are poor, who get SNAP (what used to be called food stamps benefits) who get cash assistance (what some people call welfare), the largest number of people in all those categories are white. But it’s also true that people of color are disproportionately likely to be food insecure and hungry. And the hunger rates are basically double for people of color. They’re also very high for people with disabilities, very high for households headed by women. And malnutrition makes your immune system weaker. And so, people who are malnourished are more likely to get COVID and pass on COVID.

In addition, because hunger and obesity are flip sides of the same malnutrition coin, that the greatest ironey in the world is because hungry people can’t afford the healthiest food, healthy food often doesn’t exist in low-income neighborhoods. It’s more time consuming to produce when low-income people are working two or three jobs. So, because of that, the greatest irony of the world is some of our hungriest neighborhoods are also some of our most obese neighborhoods. And so, people who are obese also often suffer from other diet-related diseases caused by malnutrition: hypertension, diabetes, heart disease. And so, that is why, in addition to the fact that low-income people are more likely to be so-called essential workers but are forced to work when white-collar people like myself can mostly work from home. But also because of the food issues, is why they’re more likely to catch COVID and why they’re more likely to die from COVID.

So,it was trendy for a while to say, “COVID, we’re all in this together,” well, not quite. Poor people and nonwhite people are getting it and dying of it at far higher rates. And they also don’t have access usually to world-class medical treatment at Walter Reed Naval Medical Center for three days.

VALLAS: Hypothetically speaking, of course.

BERG: Back to your question of the aid. The most important aid was in the Families First Act, which was championed by Speaker Pelosi that first passed the House, and she somehow got Senate Republicans to sign off on that and the White House to sign off on that. And that bill in the spring did two things. Number one, it boosted SNAP benefits for some families that were not at the maximum allotment. So, ironically, it boosted SNAP allotments for people who are less poor, because the poorest of the people were already getting the maximum allotment, although the maximum allotment was inadequate. So, again, the Families First Act, pushed by the House Democrats, first raised SNAP allotments for some families and then created this thing called Pandemic EBT, Pandemic EBT, which gave money to every kid in schools in America that was eligible for free or reduced-price meals and had their schools closed. So, tens of millions of American kids, their parents got money on a card to pay for groceries with that program. In New York State alone, my home state, Pandemic EBT provided 2.1 million kids with about $800 million worth of grocery purchasing power to their parents. And that is a big, big, big, big deal. Tens of billions of dollars nationwide in this program. Tens of millions of people helped.

And this is reinforcing why the federal safety net programs really dwarf charities. Even though the federal safety net programs are underutilized and underfunded, and there are plenty of people, I think you and I would agree, who should be included who aren’t. There are plenty of people eligible who aren’t applying or have hard barriers to applying. Even with that, the safety net programs are 15 times the dollar amount of food distributed by every food bank in America. Fifteen times, one-five times the dollar amount of every dollar worth of food distributed by every food bank in America. So, there’s been a lot of media attention on the role of charities. Not nearly enough media attention on the role of the safety net programs. So, that’s number one.

Number two is this the SNAP program is an entitlement program. And I don’t want to relitigate my old boss, Bill Clinton’s, decision to sign welfare reform legislation, at least not here and now. But I will say he did veto two previous versions of the bill that would’ve eliminated SNAP as an entitlement. And by continuing SNAP as an entitlement, that means it is a countercyclical program. It is an automatic stabilizer unlike unemployment insurance. And it did skyrocket every time the economy’s going badly. And so, SNAP participation did skyrocket over the last six months. And that did include billions of dollars of more federal money supporting low-income struggling families, and that did not require new federal legislation. So, that’s the most important thing that happens.

Then Congress passed some other bills that were really championed by Senate Republicans that gave some money to small businesses. And full disclosure, my organization, Hunger Free America, got some money out of it. But a lot of the money went to the rich. They did not, Democrats at the time, did not insist that those rounds of funding include SNAP money in them. Even though theoretically, the Democrats were originally pushing for a 15 percent hike in SNAP, they did sign off on some relief bills that did not include SNAP. Which was a little troubling since they had a little more leverage at the time. It was reported in the media that some of these bills had extra money for SNAP in them. And without getting deeper, so deep into the weeds you’re suffocated by the weeds, I will just say that was misreporting. There were technical language in the bill to basically allow previously authorized things to be spent. I’ve lost everyone now, but just let’s put it this way. There was no real serious new money for food programs in the subsequent bills that actually became law.

Then in May, the House of Representatives, led by Speaker Pelosi and with a Democratic majority, I’m not being partisan because both CAP Action and Hunger Free America do not take sides in campaigns. So, this has nothing to do with the campaign. This is a factual, nonpartisan statement based on the facts of what happened governmentally, that the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a massive additional rescue package in May, The Heroes Act, which did include a 15 percent bump up in SNAP. And the Republicans and President Trump refused to even consider that. The House a few weeks ago passed another version of that, again with a SNAP boost, and the Republicans refused to even consider that. So, we actually bought digital billboards in key states pointing out that the senators have been holding up this aid, a digital hunger clock. And now I think the day we’re recording this, it’s something like a 160 days.

And so, there’s a lot of false equivalency going on saying, oh, both sides are trying to do something. You know, this is just politics of both sides. No. One side passed a massive relief package, including a massive hunger relief package in May. And the other side has refused. And then the other side has had conflicting positions, sometimes within a day, [laughing] sometimes within an hour. We’ve been around policy and politics for a long time, and sometimes people change positions over the course of a decade or even a few years. But it is pretty stunning to see the administration take entirely contradictory positions within the course of a few hours. Not going from A to B and back again: going from A to Z and Z to A and something in between and unclear. And so, because of that confusion and because Senator McConnell basically has scoffed when he was asked about this, there’s been no movement on that.

And the only positive additional movement is there was a continuing resolution bill. Again, I know I’m throwing a lot of wonkish terms around, but a bill that the Democrats and Republicans, including the president, the Senate, and the House, agreed upon to keep the government open till December. And that did extend Pandemic EBT benefits. And so, that did say if schools are still closed and there are kids in closed schools who normally would’ve gotten a free or reduced-priced school lunches or breakfast, then they can get reimbursed with federal dollars through their states for those meals on electronic cards that they can use at supermarkets and farmers market. [huge breath] You got all that?

VALLAS: Well, I have to say, a, I appreciate the timeline, because I do think it’s important. Much as a lot of what you’re sharing is weedsy for folks to sort of have a sense of the timeline. I mean, I would throw in just a couple of other additions for context, which is that in some of those moments where there was all this reluctance to include even really, really, really, really, really — I think I got enough reallies in there — modest increase in SNAP benefits. I mean, you mentioned it, but it was a 15 percent increase in the maximum SNAP allotment that advocates and families and House Democrats were asking for. And even that was being sort of viewed as a non-starter within the same news cycle at points as, say, half a trillion dollars being handed out to unnamed corporations and friends of the current administration and whatnot. So, just for a little bit of context, where some of the outrage came? No, we don’t quite have enough money for food.

BERG: And there’s been a little bump since the pandemic. But before the pandemic, the average SNAP benefit was a $1.34 per meal. And so, this massive, princely increase of 15 percent would’ve been $1.50 per meal. And as I did mention, we’ve given tens of billions of dollars — that’s billion with a B — in money to corporate agri-business entities. And I once asked Senator Boozman of Arkansas, who is a strong proponent of increasing the work reporting requirements on food recipients who are getting $1.34 per meal, would he support similar requirements on people getting millions of dollars of corporate welfare for land they may own, but they certainly don’t work on. Many people who own farm land and get subsidies don’t even live in the state, no less work on the land. And the esteemed senator said, “I don’t understand the question.” I asked it again, and he said he didn’t understand the question. So, just the double and triple standards and the idea that people somehow aren’t deserving of food. And related to this, as you know, is the debate over unemployment compensation, that the push benefits were an extra $600 a month, and people were pushing to cut those in half, basing that on the claim that if people were making this massive amount of $600 a month, they wouldn’t want to get back to work, is pretty appalling.

And I must point out, as part of this negotiations, the very same people pushing to cut unemployment compensation were and are pushing to limit liability coverage for the companies. So, just to understand this: they want to make it easier for companies to force their employees back to work. And even if the companies are negligent and know it’s not safe to let those companies off the hook from ever being sued. At the same time, they want to take away their unemployment insurance payments to force them back to work. And so, people who claim to be pro-life are actually siding with big businesses to force people to risk their lives by taking away the money that they’re using now to pay for rent and food! How’s that?

VALLAS: Well, honestly, I think it’s actually a perfect segue way into talking about the federal court ruling on SNAP, right, because —

BERG: Some of these guys are like Mr. Burns without the heart.

VALLAS: [laughs] I think that’s appropriate. And again, even, I think, improving the segue here because what better way to introduce and remind people about the proposed rule that has now been I think struck down by a federal court now either twice or three times. We’ll talk through the how we got here, but also halted by Congress. Let’s remind people about what this rule was, given that it gets into exactly the issues you’re talking about, right? The idea of deservingness to work. Or excuse me, the deserving-undeserving, which has a lot to do with whether people are working, right? And the deserving and undeserving of people who are jobless. All of that really is kind of at the heart of the proposed rule that would have taken away food assistance from, at the time, it was estimated to be about 700,000 jobless workers. If it had been during the pandemic, unclear how many people would have lost eligibility for SNAP.

So, Joel, remind us about what this rule would’ve done. Some people call it the ABAWD rule. Able-bodied Adults Without Dependents is the kind of robotic non-human phrase that somehow came about to describe a category of workers who were being targeted here with having food assistance taken away from them. And talk a little bit about what the rule was and what the significance is of Sunday’s federal court ruling striking it down again, but in a way that we hope will be a little bit longer lasting.

BERG: So first, let’s have a little context, that most people who receive SNAP (food stamps benefits) are working people, people over the age of 60, people under the age of 18, people with disabilities. So, the vast majority of people who are getting SNAP are not covered by this rule and are children, people who are already working, senior citizens, and people with disabilities, many of whom are unable to work in traditional jobs. And then you look at the population of who are ABAWDs, that horrible, horrible phrase: able-bodied adults without dependents. A fair amount of them are veterans who are temporarily unemployed.

What the ABAWD rule generally does is say that if you don’t get a job after a certain period of time, a few months, you will lose your food benefits. But what the rule did is said that, you know what? Every state’s different. There are local labor conditions. We’re going to give a fair amount of flexibility to governors to basically say, well, if you’re in an area that doesn’t have enough jobs, then we’re going to waive these requirements and let you keep the jobs as you’re looking for work. And what this administration said was, no, we’re going to take away that flexibility from governors, many of whom are Republicans, and say, no, you can’t allow people to continue to get food as they’re actively looking for work.

And before I talk about the hunger implications, can I just say how friggin’ hypocritical it is that people who spent decades claiming that the states manage programs better than the federal government, the conservatives, are the very same people saying, oh, when the state government does something to help people, then it’s wrong.

Oh, by the way, I’m sorry this is just a podcast. You’re missing all these delightful hand gestures I have. But anyway, you’ll just have to imagine the New York, loud New Yorker with the hand gestures to accompany this interview.

VALLAS: Joel, I really appreciate that about you, because it’s hard for me to do any kind of talking about really any of these issues without somehow, at some point, becoming a human graph with like feet going one way and hands going another. And no one on radio ever gets the benefit. So, I’m really glad to hear it’s not just me.

BERG: Yeah, yeah. Remember how I used to briefly have a radio show in New York, and I wanted to feature an audio graph. [chuckles] And I was convinced by others at the station that probably didn’t make much sense. It was meant to be humorous, but I don’t think anyone got the joke.

Anyway. So, first of all, it’s hypocritical, right? And not just on hunger. You know, when cities raise minimum wages higher than the state rate, and the cities are more liberal than the states, the conservatives in the state take away the ability of localities. So, they are full of bunk when it comes to state control and local control. Their only ideological consistency is wanting to reward the rich and powerful and shaft the poor and powerless. So, that’s number one.

Number two, it creates a vast bureaucracy. Because even if you are working, under this requirement, you have to fill out extra paperwork, and the government has to process extra paperwork to signify you’re working. In many cases, people have to leave their job. And because low-income people are working on the clock, they get paid by the hour, they lose wages to go to a government office to prove they’re working! Just friggin’ friggin’ [bleep].

Oh! And by the way, on top of that, this increases hunger. Because some of the most vulnerable unemployed people lose their food. And this act is very similar to how the British treated Irish people in the famine and said, “Oh, if you’re not working, we’re not going to feed you.” Well, they were starving to death and too hungry to work. So, it’s a [bleep] policy. And, of course, it would be [bleep] in good times, but it’s truly [bleep] in these times.

And a federal chief U.S. District Judge, Beryl Howell, said this rule would radically, quote, “radically and abruptly alter decades of regulatory practice.” What he meant to say is they put in this rule. They didn’t look at any of the facts whatsoever. And he basically continued his preliminary injustice, injunction, although injustice is good nother words. And he said that the federal government was, quote, “icily silent. Icily silent on how many people would lose benefits.” So, the federal government was proposing this massive change when they didn’t even have a number of how many more people were going to lose food, how many more people were going to go hungry.

And so, I know we’re frustrated when federal courts sometimes seem to be more partisan these days. But goodness knows, the fact that there still some non-partisan courts and the checks and balances, at least in some cases, are still working, that some courts are holding an out of control executive branch in check reminds us why an independent law-based, factual judiciary with some human empathy is a pretty darn important component of a well-functioning democracy.

VALLAS: Well, and here here, which is —

BERG: And those young’uns listening to this, another time we can explain what a well-functioning democracy is.

VALLAS: I know. ‘Because Joel, you and I are old enough to remember what that looks like, right? Not everyone is.

BERG: You’re an extraordinarily well-preserved old codger. I am less so.

VALLAS: Well, and yet still old enough, although not by much, to remember those good old days.

But I want to continue a little bit with the quoting of Judge Beryl Howell, who she also writes, “Despite the Agriculture Department’s blinkered effort to downplay or disregard the predicted outcomes of the final rule,” the rule you were just talking about, “the backdrop of the pandemic has provided, in stark relief, its procedural and substantive flaws.” I also really appreciated where she said that the Trump administration had been icily silent about how many people would’ve lost benefits if the rule had been allowed to take effect during the pandemic, given how just absolutely wild it is that it was a rule that they wanted to move forward with, not just in any economy, not just in any moment, but in the middle of a global pandemic, and had to be forcibly stopped. I feel like this part really bears repeating as a core part of the story of how we got here to this court decision yet again. But the Trump administration had to be forcibly stopped from moving forward with this rule not once, but twice by a federal court and by Congress on a bipartisan basis because of the dramatic harm that would have been caused had it been allowed to take effect in this moment.

But as we sort of marvel at the tremendous cruelty that you said, Mr. Burns without a heart, right — I mean, I like that. I might steal that — but the tremendous cruelty that it would take to move this forward in a pandemic. While we marvel at that, while we remark at that, while we hold people accountable for that, it is also incredibly important in my mind to make sure that we don’t lose the broader picture here. Which is that the rule was a blueprint for jacking up hunger and malnourishment among jobless workers looking for work and other populations of workers who are not well served by our economy and by current protections even before the pandemic and even outside a pandemic. And that is what, to me, makes this court’s ruling the one that we should all hope lasts. Because the significance of it is not just to stall the rule from taking effect during the pandemic, despite the current administration’s previous hopes, but to actually prevent it from taking effect after the public health emergency ends, which is the next step we need to be thinking about as Congress and the current or the next administration, depending on what happens in a couple of weeks, takes stock of where things stand with some of our key programs like SNAP.

Joel, talk to me a little bit. And we only have just a few minutes left. So, I want to bring in kind of one last topic I wanted to make sure we had time for that really, I think, is the way to kind of bring some of this together and to bring it home. And it sort of actually also connects to where you started in this conversation, which was talking about why these types of decisions, why this kind of policymaking even is able to go on, given the many tens of millions of people whose lives it impacts for the worse, and why people are able to get away with it. Which is that lack of political power or perceived political power among lower-income people.

You actually are one of the people behind a poll that was just released just a few days ago. Very timely given, obviously, the upcoming election finding that despite what people might expect and despite what the sort of conventional wisdom might suggest in some of the kind of very serious people circles in the halls of power, most low-income voters are actually planning to vote in this election. Talk to me a little bit about that poll and what some of the takeaways are.

BERG: First of all, just one other point about the legal challenges. That every time USDA goes to court to try to keep food away from people using Justice Department lawyers, they’re spending beaucoup tax dollars on the staff time and the legal fees to pursue this court case through appeal. So, that’s another point. Instead of feeding people, they’re using our tax dollars to pay lawyers to keep food away from people and losing.

VALLAS: That’s a really important point, Joel. I really appreciate you bringing that back in because for all the times we’ve been told there isn’t enough money for food assistance, apparently there’s plenty of money to continue to appeal this decision over and over and over again in the middle of the pandemic to be allowed to take food away from people. But I digress. Please continue.

BERG: Yeah, Mr. Burns always had enough money for his hounds, even in tough times for the nuclear plant. Anyway. So, we did a poll of 5,000 Americans who we defined as low income, and we defined that pretty broadly as $50,000 annual income or below. Which is roughly the poverty line or double the poverty line. We first asked people, “Are you going to vote?” 62 percent said, “We’re certainly going to vote.” And another 18 percent said, “We’re likely to vote.” So, 80 percent of people said they’re certain to vote or they’re likely to vote. And there’s some possibility at least some of the people said that and aren’t going to vote. Something’s going to come up, or they’re telling us what we want to hear because it’s more socially acceptable to say you’re going to vote than you’re not going to vote. But even accounting for that, this points to the largest turnout among low-income people in, normally, I’d say modern American history. But considering how many voters who are poor are women or non-white, considering that much of American history, non-white people and women couldn’t vote, that this may be the highest turnout among low-income people in all of American history.

And if you just look at some places that have early voting, such as Harris County, Texas, the home of Houston, which I believe is the fourth largest city in the United States, has, despite all the oil money there, a boatload of poverty. As of 10 days before the election, they had more people voting 10 days out than they did in all of 2016. And so, our poll is really backed up by the early voting data, and where you see early voting is people are engaged in voting in this election.

But then we did something really interesting. We focused on the people who said they weren’t going to vote or might not vote. And we asked them a series of questions of why not? And we got some of the standard answers. “My vote doesn’t matter. The rich control everything anyway.” Fewer people this year said, “Both sides are the same” than they have in previous years. No shock. Because if you still believe both sides are the same, you’ve been with Rip Van Winkle and napping for a few years. But so, few people said that. But we did something different that I don’t know that anyone’s ever really done before. We asked, “What would convince you to vote?”

I thought the top answer would be that if you vote, you can force our political system to help improve your lives, get a higher allotments for SNAP, increase the minimum wage, get better healthcare. That was somewhat compelling, but not as compelling as I thought it would be, probably because low-income people are just so cynical. They’ve been brainwashed into thinking they don’t matter when they do; that they can’t make a difference when they can. The most popular message was, all of us together have more power than any of us on our own. All of us together have more power than any of us on our own. And the secondary message was that voting is now easier and quicker and safer by mail and early voting than ever before. So, we’re emphasizing those messages. We also tested the message. I’m always thinking of the great John Lewis and all the suffragettes who really risked it all and basically said, so many people in history have given their lives, have risked their careers, risked their lives to fight to allow women and people of color to vote. You know, by voting, you honor their memory. And that was compelling to certain groups of people. So, that’s the basic messaging we found.

And we are doing a non-partisan voter campaign in about 21 states around the country in targeted precincts to use this messaging through phone calls, handwritten postcards, text messaging, where it’s safe to do door-to-door canvassing or lit drops to basically reinforce this message and to see if we can prove that we’ve increased voting among low-income people above the high levels we’re expecting already.

VALLAS: And talk to me, Joel, just in the last couple of minutes, actually, last minute that we have, about sort of why you did this poll and what you feel it responds to. I sort of mentioned in my earlier question, there seems to be this kind of pervasive conventional wisdom that somehow, low-income voters don’t vote at high enough numbers to make them matter as a bloc or as a group that elected officials and candidates need to really think about or prioritize, not just when they’re campaigning, but in their governing as well. What does this tell you about what candidates should be thinking about, not just in this election, but into January and beyond when it comes to their policies and whether low-income voters are listening?

BERG: Well, and we’ve also done previous polling, that shows among all Americans, it’s very popular to do something serious about these issues. We polled even Republicans who were supportive of increasing SNAP. So, the basic message is pretty simple. Not only is doing something very serious to reduce hunger and poverty the right thing to do, not only is it in line with every religious and ethical tradition on the planet, it is good politics. It will help you win re-election or get elected. So, even if you don’t give a squat about the morality or the ethics of it, if you’re just a crass, self-serving politician and you just want to win, then for goodness sakes, you’re going to have to look at the numbers and know doing something serious about this issues is in your political self-interest.

VALLAS: And probably the right place to leave this conversation as folks continue to watch the debate around potentially another aid package: will it happen, won’t it happen before the election? Obviously, a lot wrapped up in that conversation and a lot at stake. Obviously, a lot at stake on November 3rd as well. But a message that I think, I hope folks hear and take away and that can become a new conventional wisdom that has maybe a little bit more of an actual evidence base, but also a little bit more of a heart.

Joel Berg is the CEO of Hunger Free America, based in New York. He’s a good friend. He’s also the author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America, and a former senior official within the Agriculture Department under President Bill Clinton. Joel, really, really, really always appreciate talking to you, even if you always start the conversations with bad kilt puns. And I’m looking forward to talking with you again soon, hopefully for a good news conversation about the top potential policies that Congress or the next president might be considering when it comes to reducing poverty and reducing hunger. Joel, thanks again for today.

BERG: I hope so. I can also report back I’ve started reading the Bible, Old and New Testament, from Genesis through Revelation. I’ve done the whole Old Testament. Now I’m up to Luke in the New Testament. And everything the religious right tells you about the Bible is a lie. So, that’s the report we’ll talk about more, that I stopped counting all the times they said, “Oh, boy, you got to do something serious about hunger and poverty.”

VALLAS: Also, a worthy pitch for this show! I think that sounds like a plan. Joel, thanks again for taking the time. And folks can find more about a number of the topics that we talked about, as well as the studies that we were referencing on, of course, our nerdy syllabus page on Medium. And looking forward to having some more conversations in the coming weeks to take stock of where things are and what is still needed, given the tremendous and harrowing rise that we’re now seeing in poverty and hunger in this particular moment. Joel, thanks again. Really appreciate you taking the time. And we’ll talk soon.

BERG: Thank you. We’ll talk kilts to the hilt.

VALLAS: Can’t wait!

And that does it for this episode of Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced by Will Urquhart. Find us on the airwaves on the We Act Radio Network and the Progressive Voices Network, and say hi and send us your show pitches on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And of course, find us anytime on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next time.

♪ I want freedom (freedom)

Freedom (freedom)

Now, I don’t know where it’s at

But it’s calling me back

I feel my spirit is revealing,

And now we just tryna get freedom (freedom)

What we talkin’ bout…. ♪

Off-Kilter is the podcast about poverty and inequality—and everything they intersect with. **Show archive 2017-May ‘21** Current episodes: