Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Food Stamp Challenge

Some members of Congress have agreed to live for a week on a "food stamp budget," basically the per person allocation for food stamps for those who qualify (which is $21.00/week for the average food stamp recipient).

Congressman Jim McGovern has been blogging about it at foodstampchallenge.typepad.com. As his blog attests, it is not easy to eat well or even eat much all on $21.00 a week, or basically $1.00 per meal.

After my parents divorced when I was a young teen, my Mom went on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), on and off for about three years (from when I was 12 to about 15). AFDC included an allotment of food stamps, about $130.00 a month if my memory of those teenage years is correct. [My grocery budget now is about $180 a week, and that doesn't include dining out.]

The first two weeks of the month would be good, as we had enough food in the cupboards and fridge. But, the last two weeks were grim, as the cupboards ran bare, and there was no money to buy more until the start of the next month.

I remember praying for that check and the stamps to arrive at the start of the month so that our cupboards would have food in them again. When the postman would come and deliver the mail, and the check wouldn't be there, it meant another day of privation. The disappointment that empty mailbox produced, I still remember. I wonder if that's why I now need to keep necessities stocked. I get anxious when there's not milk or bread for tomorrow.

I remember many mornings at school when around 10am my tummy would rumble, because the piece of toast or small bowl of cereal had worked through my system hours ago. I was deeply embarrassed by the rumble. If I had gum, I'd swallow it to try and shut it up. No wonder I was a very skinny teen.

In especially lean months, my Mom would get government cheese, peanut butter, and prunes. I don't remember what agency or who gave that stuff out. The cheese came in a huge brick that would last weeks, and we'd live on cheese sandwiches until the bread ran out. I also came to love prunes.

When you're on welfare, you don't get to indulge in many sweets, like ice cream or candy, and the prunes were sticky and sweet, and would satisfy that intense craving for sugar that seems to drive children's taste buds. I still like prunes, although they're not as satisfying now.

The allotment for food stamps has not increased since 1996. So, as inflation has risen the amount granted in food stamps has stayed the same. Representative McGovern has proposed legislation to add $4 billion to the food stamp program, which he intends to add to the next agriculture bill. He also would peg the program to the rate of inflation.

For the 26 million Americans who receive food stamps (and that's only a percentage of those who are eligible for the program), such a move would help ease the burden of intense poverty and need, though it would by no means entail a life of gluttony.

So, I praise Representative McGovern and the other members of Congress who are taking the challenge. They get to try out poverty for a week, and to live in the shoes of the working and unemployed poor. They're trying to start a very important conversation in this country about hunger and poverty, two issues that are real, pervasive, and largely ignored by those of us who live comfortable lives.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Katie Couric and the Demand for Hard News

The New York Times has an article online this morning about Katie Couric and the ratings for the CBS Evening News.

CBS News remains in third place and has slipped in ratings since Couric's arrival.

The article interviews various people who speculate on a range of reasons for the third place position, the most prominent being that the problem is Couric. Her approval ratings as an anchor are lower than those for Brian Williams at NBC and Bob Schieffer at ABC (which is in first place in the ratings); that is, there are more people that don't like her than don't like the other two anchors.

The other speculation is not that it's Couric, per se, but that she's a woman. Apparently there have been critical commentaries that she's too soft on news and was too hard on John Edwards and Elizabeth after they announced Elizabeth's return of cancer. There are also accusations that she wears too much or too little make-up, complaints one does not hear about Williams or Schieffer.

My own prognosis is this: CBS made a tactical error in going with soft news in the evening news slot. As the foreign and domestic scenes in the United States grow increasingly problematic and complex, viewers of national television news want more hard news, not less (hoorday!). Couric, with her reputation for the morning show, brings a soft news touch to in a time of hard realities.

So, recently CBS hired a a new executive to help turn-around CBS Evening News. Rick Kaplan has shifted the format to a major story with a few sidebar stories, and has picked up the pace of the show (MTV-ifying it, if you will), which is a format that is more typical of hard news.

The problem for CBS now is that if they shift to a hard news format, they've got the wrong anchor. I'm not saying that Couric can't do hard news. But, her reputation and the audience of people who were drawn to her in her morning show career are used to a "soft news" delivery style from Couric. So now, there's a disconnect between their anchor and audience and their news delivery. Given time Couric can make the transition, I suspect. But, will CBS give her the time?