- Economic Justice
Saving America’s Most Effective Anti-Hunger Program
Annual Meeting 2018
FCNL's Amelia Kegan delivered this address at Annual Meeting 2018.
Let me start by saying how good it is to be with you all this morning. I know for many of you, whatever means you took, it has been a journey to get to Washington. It has been a journey to get through November. It has been a journey to get through this year. The past two years. But let’s be honest. What this country is facing, what we are struggling against—and for—didn’t begin two years ago.
FCNL has been at this for 75 years. And on this journey, towards the world we seek, there is no better set of traveling companions than the ones that surround me today. I am grateful for the sacrifices you all have made to be here today and every day to do this work.
This year has been a journey, hasn’t it? Just this past month, the president has questioned the legitimacy of the 14th amendment, advocated abolishing birthright citizenship. Has deployed military troops within our own country while CBP officers shoot tear gas at families desperately seeking refuge from poverty and violence.
Yet another report—this one from 13 federal agencies, again giving dire warnings about the threats of climate change. While the administration continues to deny, and congressional leaders just sit by, not wanting to jeopardize campaign dollars.
More and more communities—in rural areas, in urban areas—all poor—can no longer access safe drinking water. Why? Government agencies won’t regulate or inspect, profiting polluters and big companies.
Voter suppression is on the rise. Like North Dakota’s voter ID law requiring a street address, directly disenfranchising Native Americans who live on reservations.
That long-awaited Pentagon audit, showing . . . that the Pentagon has no workable, reliable accounting system. Yet Congress continues to throw hundreds of billions of dollars for planes that won’t fly and weapons we don’t need.
And that’s all just in the past month. Never mind last year’s tax bill, with trillions of dollars of unpaid tax cuts, 80 percent of which went to the wealthiest one percent. Never mind the repeated attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act.
Again and again, all around, the news is overrun by stories about efforts to further benefit those with the most power, the most privilege, the most wealth at the direct expense of those with the least power, the least privilege, the least wealth.
It is hard not to feel overwhelmed by it all. Like the world is spinning out of control. Like our country might be headed off a cliff. Has anyone else felt that way?
In times when there is so much out of our control, it sometimes helps to focus on those places we can control. As much as I may wish we had a different president right now. As much as I want the Republican Congress to stand up and actually act as a check on this executive, I can’t force them to.
But I have faith in an almighty and powerful God. A God who is most at work in the darkest, most broken of places. And now more than ever, we are invited to be His hands and feet. We are not in control, but neither are we powerless to act.
In this broad assault on some of those basic values of fairness and equality that we see today there is something you can do right now. Because there is a concrete choice before Congress right now. One we could actually influence and win.
It is the farm bill. And with it, the future of SNAP, America’s most important anti-hunger program.
You’re going to be getting a lot of information today. But you don’t need a policy degree. Really, you just need a common-sense degree.
At the end of the day, this all boils down to one thing: Taking food away from people is no jobs program. That’s it. Taking food away from people does not help them get a job.
If you can get that. And tell your own story about why this issue moves you—you’re good.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly food stamps, helps 40 million people put food on the table, half of them kids. The average benefit is $1.40 per person, per meal.
There’s been a lot of talk in Washington about work requirements. That entire concept that you don’t deserve medical care, food, or housing assistance unless you have a stable job baffles me.
But SNAP already HAS work requirements. If you are an able-bodied-adult without dependents, and you aren’t working at least 20 hours a week, you are limited to three months of SNAP benefits over a three year period. Three months.
But the congressional conversation is not over whether to have these work requirements or not. Congress has been debating whether to make the existing work requirements worse.
Currently, states can waive that three-month time limit in places with high unemployment. We saw this a lot in the wake of the Great Recession. Because it’s not fair to punish someone for not finding a job when there are no jobs to find. Again, common sense. But some in Congress want to restrict this state flexibility and prevent states from waiving that three-month time limit.
In the coming days, Congress has a choice to make. Final negotiations are going on around the farm bill, which reauthorizes SNAP. The House passed its version of the farm bill. The Senate passed its bill. They’ve been trying to reconcile the differences in a final farm bill. We hear negotiators are very close to reaching an agreement. But we don’t know the final language. As they reconcile between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill, when it comes to SNAP, there is a clear choice:
On the one hand is the Senate bill—overwhelmingly bipartisan, it passed 86-11. It protects SNAP and doubles down on important pilot programs, focused on people with disabilities, criminal records, substance use disorders, the elderly and veterans.
Option two is the House bill. It is extremely partisan. It took two attempts to get it through the House floor and even then it squeaked through by just two votes. Not one Democrat voted for it.
The House bill says the current, existing work requirements on SNAP are too lenient. Three months to find a job is too lenient. That state flexibility to waive that 3 month time limit in high unemployed areas—is too lenient.
So Congress has a choice:
Kick more people off of SNAP. People who are struggling to keep their heads above water because last year’s tax bill didn’t help them.
Or Congress can choose to prove that it can function. Can work across the aisle. Can pass meaningful legislation that invests in and bets on people struggling in this economy.
We are asking Congress to pass a final farm bill that mirrors the Senate’s SNAP provisions.
It looks like congressional leaders will agree to the Senate version. They could even release the framework of a deal today, and it looks like we may win. But we don’t know until we see the final language, and with this Congress and this president, nothing is a done deal. Winning on this would be a win for millions of Americans across this country.
But this is about more than just this farm bill. Because these work requirement threats aren’t going away. We’re seeing them, not only in federal legislation but popping up in state legislatures, administrative regulations. More are on their way. Winning on the farm bill sends an important signal.
It is a signal that Congress can function when it stops demonizing and attacking marginalized and vulnerable people. It’s a signal that taking basic assistance away from people struggling to find work will meet strong opposition. That there is a coalition of people committed to preventing policies aimed at advancing power, privilege, and wealth for the few at the direct expense of those struggling to get by.
This work doesn’t end after our lobby visits tomorrow. Social justice advocacy is a long-term relationship. It doesn’t end on Sunday afternoon. It doesn’t end when we return to our regular routines. This work is connected to something bigger. And the farm bill is a piece of it.
The fight for SNAP benefits is the fight for every person to be able to live with dignity. Necessary on the path to eliminating poverty. Tied and connected to addressing the structural, economic imbalances in our society. Tied and connected to dismantling racism. Tied and connected to dismantling Islamophobia. Tied and connected to the injustice of family separation immigration policies at the border and family separation incarceration policies in communities of color. Tied and connected to the voting rights movement, the tribal recognition movement, the transgender rights movement, the Dreamer movement, the #MeToo movement, the environmental justice movement, the not tolerating taking away a journalists press pass for asking tough questions movement. We are on this road together.
If you know me, you know I love running long distances, and I really love talking about running long distances. An image that keeps returning to my head is a memory from my most recent race. It is 3am and I am deep in the Moab desert. Nearing mile 220 of a 243 mile race, I have been running for more than 90 hours with barely any sleep. The temperature is well below freezing, and my water is a solid brick of ice. Nothing around. It’s been hours since I left the last aid station and I am exhausted.
I keep thinking, where is the next aid station? I should’ve been there by now. Every bend in the path ahead of me, I am certain, once I ‘round that corner I will see those aid station lights, hear the voices of the volunteers. But each time I’m met only by more darkness. More silence. I should’ve been there by now.
I continue on and on. I should’ve been there by now. I stop seeing ribbons marking the race course. I am all alone. I should’ve been there by now. It’s two hours past when I estimated I would arrive at the aid station. Still all that greets me is more cold, more wind, more darkness. I should’ve been there by now. Where are the course markings? Fear takes over. I’ve missed a turn. I’m off course. I might be lost out here in the wilderness forever. Desperate and terrified I cry to God for help. Don’t leave me lost out here. Lord, let me be on the right road. Just get me to that aid station.
And just then, I hear footsteps. I turn around to see the headlamp of another runner shining a path in the darkness.
I hadn’t taken a wrong turn. I wasn’t lost. It was just a really, really long race, and a really, really long section. And I was really tired.
November is nearly over and come January we will have divided government. Democrats may be in control of the House, but we have to remember, this is a really, really long journey. And we’re going to think at times, “We should’ve been there by now.”
When exhausted in the middle of the Moab desert in the black of night. When consumed by fear and desperation, the Lord answered my prayers. Not by easing the struggle or removing the suffering. The distance didn’t grow shorter. The winds didn’t die down. The Lord answered with a companion. Another ordinary runner. She too was cold. She too was tired. But together we leaned on each other, supported each other. Encouraged each other. Two ordinary, rather slow runners made it to the finish line, accomplishing something extraordinary.
When the leader of our country publicly calls himself a nationalist. When the U.S. government is tearing young children at the border from parents seeking asylum. When U.S. law enforcement officers are spraying tear gas at toddlers. When someone walks into a synagogue outside Pittsburgh and murders congregants out of anti-Semitism and hatred. The response is often: “This isn’t who we are. This isn’t who our country is.” And the response to that is often: “Yes it is. We’ve always been this way. It’s just more visible now.”
It’s true, but I look to a different statement. The question is not whether this is who we are. The point is that this is not who we were made to be. God made/designed us for so much more. Let that be our horizon and guiding light.
We live in a celebrity obsessed culture. Our president is a reality TV star. Two-fifths of Congress are millionaires. The biggest blockbusters are about superheroes endowed with super-human powers. Too often people’s sense of self-worth is determined by the number of retweets, Facebook friends, and Instagram followers.
What I love about the Bible is how it shows again and again how God doesn't pick the people on the podium. He doesn't choose the celebrities. When a leader is needed. When courageous action required. God calls on ordinary people to accomplish the extraordinary.
When the Mideonites are wreaking havoc on the Israelites, ravaging their land, destroying their crops, cattle, and sheep, God sends not a decorated soldier but Gideon, a farmer from the weakest clan, the least in his family. A man of strong faith, yet still questions God.
Joseph gets caught up in a criminal justice system that advantages the wealthy at the expense the poor. This formerly incarcerated individual rises to power by heeding, not denying a report of impending climate disruption. Joseph, formerly enslaved and incarcerated, is the one to successfully lead Egypt through famine and drought.
Esther, an orphan Jew becomes queen yet risks her life to stop an administrative decree to remove all the Jews. Let me say that again. The king issues an executive order to remove people from a different nation. He directs his agents to raid communities and businesses known to have many people from that nation living and working there. God calls on Esther to stand up, come out, and speak out to save her brothers and sisters.
Ruth, a Moabian follows her mother-in-law, Naomi, to her homeland of Bethlehem. Ruth is not denied entry because of so-called “chain migration.” Her gleaning of food assistance, doesn’t bar a green card because of a “public charge” designation. Instead, Ruth works hard, marries Boaz, and together they raise a family. Now this is important because from Ruth comes Obed. Through Obed comes Jesse Through Jesse comes David, the renowned shepherd king. Some of you know where I’m going with this. Because David eventually leads to Joseph and it is Joseph and Mary who play that pivotal role in Christianity.
God goes to Moses—a poor shepherd with a stutter—slow of speech and tongue—and picks him to tell pharaoh to let his people go. Leads them out of Egypt, seeking refuge from a tyrannical and oppressive regime. Oh, Let me say that again. God picks Moses to lead a migrant caravan of asylees across the desert, seeking refuge in a new homeland.
Finally, Jesus himself born in a manger. An undocumented child when his parents brought him to Egypt as a baby to escape an oppressive king. A man wrongfully prosecuted and convicted. Who socialized with outcasts and the marginalized. The Messiah was a Dreamer. A refugee. A prisoner. A social worker. And an underpaid teacher.
It doesn’t matter your background or where you came from. You are here today. You are needed today. In this moment of America’s history. You have a role to play.
We are on this journey together. It may be hard right now. It may be dark right now. But I know. That there is a light within you. That there is a fire within you. That there is a purpose burning within you. I can see. That Spirit in you. That passion lit in you.
I know that there is a reason you are here today. I believe that we are making history in this day. This movement is growing. More people are waking. So let God let loose the rains of justice. Let God pour out His Spirit on us in this room today. And tomorrow, we’re going to light up the halls of Congress. As the hands and feet of the Almighty. Beaming forth His love and truth. It may be a struggle. It may be slow going. But we’re going to keep carrying on. One foot in front of the other. Leaning on each other. Encouraging each other. Strengthening each other. Praying for each other. Along the long road of righteousness. The path of justice. Towards that horizon of the World We Seek and the Kingdom of God.