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November 28, 2012

House of Burgess – Put politicians on food stamps

Understanding another’s struggle can lead to empathy

There’s plenty of evidence to prove Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., is an exceptional human being. In just the last 12 months he’s personally shoveled the driveway of one of his elderly constituents, saved a woman’s life by pulling her from a burning building and allowed Hurricane Sandy victims to sleep and eat in his home. Those singular incidents of selflessness are beyond commendable, but hard to repeat. Booker’s latest act of valor, though, can and should be replicated by leaders at every level of government.

Though details are scarce as of this writing, Booker will soon embark on a challenge in which he will eat all three daily meals for a week on a total of $4.44 per day – the same amount given to those enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as the food stamp program. Booker first proposed the challenge after a heated exchange with a conservative Twitter follower who didn’t believe nutrition was the responsibility of government.

“The mayor is now using the Twitter hashtag #SNAPChallenge to promote the project,” reported CNN Money’s Annalynn Kurtz.

Booker isn’t the first local politician to undertake this endeavor. In September, Greg Stanton, mayor of Phoenix, Ariz., joined others in his community as he attempted to feed himself for an entire week on $29.

“It’s only for a week, so I’ve got a decent attitude,” wrote Stanton in his public Facebook journal during the experience. “If I were doing this with no end in sight, I probably wouldn’t be so pleasant.”

Such intense, foreign experiences can’t help but change the outlook of those involved. In years past, other high-profile individuals have similarly walked in the shoes of the downtrodden to better understand their pain, only to return changed men. In 1978, Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif., became the only congressman ever assassinated on the job when he was murdered in Guyana while attempting to rescue members of the Jim Jones-led Peoples Temple. But eight years before, he served 10 days under a pseudonym as a prisoner at Folsom State Prison while serving on the California State Assembly prison reform committee.

And in May 2008, the late, great Christopher Hitchens gave new meaning to the term “immersion journalism” when he agreed to be waterboarded. Previously a vocal defender of the practice, Hitchens could only stand the procedure for 11 seconds before relenting.

“I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: ‘If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,’” he wrote in his Vanity Fair article about the experience. “Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

Whether you agree with the idea of food stamps or not, it is a daily reality for the 46 million Americans who utilized the program as of March, according to the USDA. And as the economy continues to recover from the Great Recession, the need only grows greater. Here in Indiana, the average monthly food stamp benefit per person rose from $96.10 in 2007 to $131.66 in 2012, close to the current national average.

I think the sort of experiment Booker, Stanton and others have signed up for is a fantastic idea that is worth expanding on a universal scale across the whole political spectrum. Every mayor, governor, senator and representative in the country, regardless of political affiliation, should be forced eat a food stamp diet for a week, or longer.

“Identifying, in a concrete way, with struggling families is an important exercise for any leader,” wrote Stanton on the fifth day of his endeavor. “By walking in the shoes of those who depend on the SNAP program, I certainly feel like I’ve gained critical perspective as a policymaker.”

It really doesn’t matter if the politician in question is on board with SNAP. My idea is not to torment them until they change their minds. It’s just that it’s much harder to hate on someone once you understand that person’s struggle.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robaburg.

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