Why We Can't Ignore the Caveats to Cory Booker's Food Stamp Challenge

The impact of poverty is deeper than just being hungry.

Back when I was an elementary school teacher in Compton, California, I always kept a supply of snacks in my classroom: A box of Cheerios, apples and oranges, Pop Tarts, a canister of raisins, juice boxes, and granola bars. All of my students were on free or reduced breakfast and lunch, but sometimes they arrived at school too late to get breakfast in the cafeteria. Sometimes they ate the breakfast, but because they hadn't had a good dinner the night before, they were quickly hungry again. Those snacks always came in handy.

One afternoon I decided to walk one of my students home. He'd attempted to stab another kid with a pencil and his mom didn't have a phone and hadn't responded to my notes home about the incident. Once we arrived, he proudly showed me the case of ramen noodles on top of the refrigerator. He simply heated a pack up every night, doused it with oil and salt, and ate it for dinner. Every night.

Everyone who's ever taught at a public school in a low income area has stories like this. And with nearly one fourth of American children living in poverty, the number of kids who need free breakfast and lunch—and whose families rely on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal food stamp program—is growing. Still, it wasn't a surprise when one of Newark mayor Cory Booker's Twitter followers had a tough time believing that there are still families in America that are too poor to feed their children before they head to school. The Twitter follower also disagreed that it's the federal government's responsibility to ensure that those children don't hear the grumbling of their stomachs instead of the voices of their classmates and teachers.

Last week, Booker—who is a strong supporter of SNAP and had been tweeting his opposition to Congress' plans to slash $16 billion from the program—gamely agreed to step into the shoes of America's poor and live on $33, the equivalent of a week's worth of food stamps—all without accepting food from friends and colleagues, or noshing at swanky fundraisers and holiday parties. His social media updates about his struggles with the challenge—everything from burning his last sweet potato to the angst of taking small bites to delay hunger pains, and the fear of running out of food and having to subsist on mayonnaise—helped many Americans understand how tough it is to survive on $1.33 per meal.

But even though Booker's efforts helped raise awareness, as PostBourgie's Gene Demby points out, we can't forget the caveats inherent in the SNAP challenge. "You can't neatly partition off hunger from stuff like inadequate housing or electricity or health care or safety or education," writes Demby. "All those things are happening in concert and informing each other; their effects are cumulative."

That student of mine who existed on ramen noodle dinners didn't just have to deal with hunger. Unlike Booker, he went home to a one-bedroom home that he shared with four other family members and his mother's boyfriend. The roof leaked when it rained, he slept on the couch, and had to deal with seeing his mom getting beaten. He couldn't play in the front yard because of the violence in the neighborhood.

My stash of snacks couldn't begin to fix what was going in this child's life because of poverty.

Indeed, says Demby,

"...the accretion of poverty's psychic costs doesn't end when your belly is full. We know now that poverty saps people’s abilities to do effective cost-benefit analysis in all types of decisions; poor people already have to make too many of those least-terrible-option decisions each day, which means they simply choose not to make some decisions at all."


There was an end to Booker's SNAP challenge, but for the students I taught—and so many others in classrooms today—there is no end in sight. Poverty for them "isn't just economic," says Demby. "It's existential." It changes who you are and how you relate to the world forever.

Demby remembers "not having hot water at the crib at all during high school, and our stove not working." So "in order to bathe," he says, "we'd have to put a pot of water on a hot plate and lug it, gingerly, upstairs to the bathroom." He spent years taking "shallow baths that were either frigid or scalding. One of the best parts of going away to college for me," says Demby, "was that I could take long showers, every day, in my dorm if I wanted."

I don't know what happened to that student of mine. I worked my butt off to make sure he learned how to read—I still remember the first time he got an "A" on a grade-level reading comprehension quiz. I'd like to think that he went on to take long showers or enjoy the dizzying array of food choices in his college cafeteria—or that he became a Rhodes Scholar like Booker. I am hopeful, but I also remember just how much that child had to overcome to simply get to school every day.

Sure, Booker's right that preserving SNAP is essential and I'm glad he's fighting for it. Families—and children—would starve without the food it provides. But let's not take our eyes off the real issue: ending poverty. If we do that, we eliminate the other systemic issues that hold kids back from realizing their full potential. Whether that happens through the model of the Promise Neighborhoods, or some other program, that—not experiments in living like we're poor—has to be our goal. We just have to decide if we have the collective will to achieve it.


Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

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"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

via The Howard Stern Show / YouTube

Former Secretary of State, first lady, and winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, sat own for an epic, two-and-a--half hour interview with Howard Stern on his SiriusXM show Wednesday.

She was there to promote "The Book of Gutsy Women," a book about heroic women co-written with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

In the far-reaching conversation, Clinton and the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" and, without a doubt, the best interviewer in America discussed everything from Donald Trump's inauguration to her sexuality.

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The healthcare systems in the United States and the United Kingdom couldn't be more different.

The UK's National Health Service is the largest government-run healthcare system in the world and the US's is largest private sector system.

Almost all essential health services in the UK are free, whereas in America cost can vary wildly based on insurance, co pays and what the hospitals and physicians choose to charge.

A medical bill in the US

One of the largest differences is cost. The average person in the UK spends £2,989 ($3915) per year on healthcare (most of which is collected through taxes), whereas the average American spends around $10,739 a year.

So Americans should obviously be getting better care, right? Well, the average life expectancy in the UK is higher and infant mortality rate is lower than that in the US.

RELATED: The World Health Organization declares war on the out of control price of insulin

Plus, in the U.S., only 84% of people are covered by private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Sixteen percent of the population are forced to pay out of pocket.

In the UK, everyone is covered unless they are visiting the country or an undocumented resident.

Prescription drugs can cost Americans an arm and a leg, but in the UK, prescriptions or either free or capped at £8.60 ($11.27).

via Wikimedia Commons

The one drawback to the NHS system is responsiveness. In the UK people tend to wait longer for inessential surgeries, doctor's appointments, and in emergency rooms. Whereas, the US is ranked as the most responsive country in the world.

RELATED: Alarmingly high insulin prices are forcing Americans to flock to Canada to buy the drug

The New York Times printed a fair evaluation of the UK's system:

The service is known for its simplicity: It is free at the point of use to anyone who needs it. Paperwork is minimal, and most patients never see a bill. … No one needs to delay medical treatment until he or she can afford it, and virtually everyone is covered. …

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States spent 17.2 percent of its economic output on health care in 2016, compared with 9.7 percent in Britain. Yet Britain has a higher life expectancy at birth and lower infant mortality.

Citizens in each country have an interesting perspective on each other's healthcare systems. UK citizens think it's inhumane for Americans have to pay through the nose when they're sick or injured. While Americans are skeptical of socialist medicine.

A reporter from Politics Joe hit the streets of London and asked everyday people what they think Americans pay for healthcare and they were completely shocked.