Nearly one in 10 Kansans is enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the new name for food stamps. The program was established decades ago with the help of Sen. Bob Dole. Over the past few months, Kansans in Washington like Rep. Tim Huelskamp and Sen. Pat Roberts have taken aim at this food program that has just 1 percent fraud nationally and that supplies meals to at least 170,000 veterans and more than 5,000 active duty personnel.
I believe this to be a program that exudes American values. One of the first things many of our ancestors saw as they came to our shores was the Statue of Liberty, a beacon that displays the inscrip-tion, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, Tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
My job working to assist homeless veterans find and maintain sustainable housing began almost immediately after my service in an U.S. Army infantry unit. The honor to continue to serve veterans has been eye-opening. Soldiers who transition into the civilian world often find it very difficult — complicated further by the bureaucratic nightmare of Veterans Administration disa-bility claims, establishing educa-tion benefits and finding work in an economy that is still strug-gling. Recently, a veteran with presumed 100 percent disability rating from both the VA and Department of Defense ended up in my office after a night in an emergency shelter. He had been out of the military less than a week and was already experiencing homelessness be-cause of the inefficiencies in disability compensation back-logs. Thousands of veterans’ families across Kansas have experienced similar episodes of homelessness, and are all too familiar with repeated stints in the sparse network of emergency shelters. Many more Kansans are on the brink, and unfor-tunately, the shelters are at capacity.
With nearly 10 percent of Kansans enrolled in SNAP, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize how many of our neighbors just don’t have the income to sustain the basic needs of a family. Food assist-ance becomes vital to the most vulnerable. The average benefit is about $171 per month. That may not be a lot for a family, but it is enough to help them keep their heads above water and continue to find work or get by while bureaucrats sort their paperwork for compensation due to an injury sustained fighting in a foreign country.
The villainization of “food stamps” came to a head on the floor of the U.S. House recently. Rep. Huelskamp stated that food stamp recipients just “sit on the couch,” and later in an interview suggested that they “go pick up trash in a road ditch.” This attitude is perpetuated by viral emails about waiting in long lines at the grocery store behind someone using food stamps while talking on an IPhone and wearing brand new sneakers. Sure, 1 percent of people get through the paper maze and abuse the assistance, but who is to say that I didn’t donate those shoes or Apple didn’t donate the phone to faith-based initiatives like the one I work for to provide to those who are most in need.
There are real people in Kansas who are grateful of SNAP and have climbed the ladder of the American Dream. I met a high ranking Army officer in Manhattan last fall who expressed a deep understanding of economic hardship. He reminisced about when he first enlisted in the Army with a wife and new baby. He said that if they had not been able to get food stamps, he probably would have had to find another line of work to feed his family. After 20-plus years of decorated service, those days have long passed for him. We all start somewhere, and occasionally we need that hand up that resonates in those words engraved on the Statue of Liberty.
Aaron Estabrook is the northern Kansas case manager for Supportive Services for Veteran Families. SSVF is a grant-based program funded through the Department of Veteran Affairs and addresses housing needs for homeless veterans.