Cory Booker (aka “America’s Favorite Mayor”) has garnered a number of reactions to his announcement that he would be living off of food stamps for a week in order to increase awareness about food insecurity. Some have commended the Newark politician for his plan, while many others have denounced it as misguided “poverty tourism” that wouldn’t actually do much to educate anyone about the importance of SNAP benefits (the official name for the Federal food program); there’s also a good number of folks squarely in the middle who feel that Booker’s intentions are noble, but his plan is simply flawed.
I find myself in the latter group. I’ve certainly seen other comfortable-if-not-wealthy individuals and groups attempt to draw attention to the plight of poverty in uncomfortable and sometimes insulting ways. However, I don’t put Mayor Booker in the same category as I would a rich photographer who flits around the ‘hood taking ‘harrowing’ images of urban life, nor would I compare him to former Batchelorette star Jillian Harris, who slept outside for one night (with her fiancée keeping her company) in order to raise funds for a homeless shelter.
In 1998, then-City Councilor Booker moved into Brick Towers, which was one of Newark’s roughest project tenements. He stayed there until 2006, at which point he moved to a rental in the city’s also-challenged South Ward, where he still lives today. Prior to becoming mayor, he also went on a 10-day hunger strike and lived in a tent and a motor home to protest open drug dealing in Newark. All of this places Booker in great contrast with his predecessor Sharpe James, who jetted around the city in a Rolls and gallivanted on a yacht, amidst charges he was flipping properties illegally with his mistress and doing other things that the name “Sharpe James” brings to mind.
Living in the projects for six years when you don’t have is not what I would call a cheap stunt. Look at the credit that President Obama enjoys for his time on the ground as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side; you don’t think Booker could build up the same legend without giving up the trappings of a cozy apartment in a more ‘desirable’ part of town? I’m not saying his track record of hopping in the trenches makes the food stamp plan a good one—I just think it says a lot about the good intentions behind a bad idea.
Booker has proved over the past 15 years that he is deeply committed to improving the lives of Newark’s residents—a group of people who’s struggles have often been reduced to punch lines and derision (semi-related: please check out this 2008 letter from the mayor clapping back at an Esquire article that he found to be offensive to the city.) However, instead of working to de-stigmatize the food stamp program or simply highlight how the benefits make it hard to feed a family, Booker should explore the greater issue: the low incomes that challenge food stamp recipients even more than their grocery budgets.
Instead of losing a pound or two by eating from a limited budget for a week, perhaps the mayor could find a way to expose the world to the realities of urban poverty; what does it look like to have to decide between paying one’s gas or electric bill? What do you do when the family’s computer is not functioning and your child has no bus fare to get to the nearest library? How is homework completed in a household where mom is working the overnight shift and only sees her children on their way out for school? How does a family eat when the last of the food stamps were sold to get school uniforms, toothpaste, diapers? And what about those families who don’t qualify for stamps at all, yet still face major food insecurity?
Don’t get me wrong—there is certainly a need to educate members of the public about the food stamp program—formally known as “SNAP benefits.” Chatter during the recent presidential election reminded us how many willfully ignorant folks don’t understand that the majority of recipients are employed—- I learned during the Walmart strike this past Black Friday that approximately 80% of the retailer’s employees are on food stamps. I’d wager that some of those who think that they are a “gift” to lazy people probably don’t realize that they, too, qualify for the assistance.
While many of us think that sustaining and improving SNAP and other programs that aid poor Americans is a matter of basic human decency, there are others who feel strongly that they shouldn’t exist at all. It seems that Booker is targeting those folks’ heartstrings with his efforts. Unfortunately, his plan simply fails to put a spotlight on what poverty really looks like. The beloved mayor and his intentions need to go back to the drawing board.
Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com