Category Archives: Engaged Buddhism

Taking Food Out of Poor Kids’ Mouths

By Randy Rosenthal

The US Department of Agriculture has proposed restricting access to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (known as “food stamps”) on the ostensible grounds that it is necessary to close a loophole in the program. But the real reason, it appears, is an ideological commitment to lowering taxes on the rich and cutting government spending on the poor. 

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Back in 1964, President Johnson initiated the War on Poverty, which aimed to eradicate the conditions of poverty by providing American citizens with access to food, education, and a secure retirement. Today, the Trump Administration is leading a War against the Poor, which aims to do the opposite. The most recent and blatant act in this war is the US Department of Agriculture’s proposal to restrict the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.

On July 23, the USDA released a statement about the proposal, which aims to save $2.5 billion by taking 3 million people off of food stamps. The statement doesn’t mention it, but 500,000 of these people are children who will automatically lose access to free school lunches.

The ostensible rationale behind the proposal is that there is “a loophole” that needs to be closed: low income participants receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits are automatically eligible for food stamps. Because of this policy, which is designed to help transition families toward economic independence, the USDA claims that people are receiving assistance when they clearly don’t need it. To support this claim, they point to a Minnesota man who enrolled in the program, even though he was a millionaire.

In a statement explaining the proposal, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (who has a net worth of somewhere between $11 million and $53 million) said, “we are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.” After all, he said, “The American people expect the government to be fair, efficient, and have integrity.” How can someone argue with that? It sounds good. But it’s not. In fact, it’s the height of hypocrisy and deviousness.

First of all, if a family qualifies for TANF, they are by definition needy, and therefore need food stamps. Second, who is this Minnesota man? His name is Rob Undersander. On the application, he stated his income, which was low because he is retired, and did not state his assets, which is not required in the form. He then received SNAP benefits for 18 months, simply to show he could waste tax-payer money. Bravo. But how many other people would spend their time applying for a program they don’t need? Probably no one. More importantly, Undersander did not apply for or receive TANF benefits, and so the loophole that is supposedly being closed has nothing to do with his case. That is, the stated rationale behind the proposal is fallacious.

In truth, the recent proposal is part of a larger Republican war on the poor. For instance, back in May, the Administration proposed regulatory changes to redefine the formula for calculating poverty. If they could lower the official poverty line by adjusting how inflation is measured, then fewer people would officially qualify as poor, resulting in fewer people eligible for benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Currently, a family of four with an income of $25,750 or less is considered poor and eligible for government programs. There are about 40 million Americans considered to be living in poverty, or about 12% of our population. That’s a huge number of people who are struggling, among them parents who cannot afford to provide food for their children. That’s why we have such programs as SNAP and offer free school lunches, because, obviously, if kids can’t eat a decent meal, they can’t learn. About 38 million Americans receive food stamps, and 56% of SNAP benefits go to households at or below half of the poverty line. Yet SNAP not only benefits people in poverty, it prevents it, keeping 8.4 million people out of poverty in 2015, including 3.8 million children.

But SNAP does more than provide food and help people get out of poverty. It actually greatly helps the economy. In fact, SNAP benefits are considered one of the fastest and most effective forms of economic stimulus. According to the USDA’s own Economic Research Service, $1 billion of SNAP benefits creates 8,900-17,900 full-time jobs, and every $5 of SNAP benefits generates $9 in total economic activity. Conversely, for every $1 billion in cuts to SNAP funding, 11,437 jobs would be destroyed. This means that the Trump Administration’s recent proposal would actually result in a loss of about 28,590 jobs. Finally, as a share of our GDP, SNAP spending has been steadily decreasing, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and is not contributing to long-term budgetary pressures.

So the question is: Why would we want to literally be taking food out of poor children’s mouths? Why take food off the tables of low-income families? Why are millionaires and billionaires fighting a war against the poor? Whether a family has an annual income of $20,000 or $40,000, life for them is hard. So why make things harder for people who are already having a hard time?

It’s not simply to save $2.5 billion. If the Trump Administration really cared about saving tax-payer dollars, they wouldn’t have increased military spending by $164 billion since 2016, proposing to spend an irresponsible $750 billion on defense in 2020. And they would not have recently passed tax-cuts that will cost the federal government $17 billion. These tax cuts mostly benefit millionaires, and so in essence, what the Trump Administration is saying with these proposals is this: Let’s take from the poor and give to the rich. It’s a reverse Robin Hood.

No, the reason behind this proposal is not practical but ideological. It is not because the administration wants to be fair, efficient, and have integrity, but because conservatives are blindly devoted to lowering taxes and cutting programs designed to help the poor. And due to this obsessive commitment to an abstract idea, millions of actual human beings will suffer.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University, where he recently earned a Masters of Theological Studies, with a Buddhist Studies focus. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. He edits at bestbookediting.com.

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A Buddhist Perspective on Women’s Liberation

By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

Kisa Gotami asks the Buddha to heal her dead son.

This winter, BGR chair Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi spent two months in India. During this time he was invited to give the keynote address at a conference on “Buddhism and Women’s Liberation,” held in Bodhgaya on January 30 and 31, 2019, under the auspices of the Maha Bodhi Society of India. Here is a lightly edited version of his address.

Obstacles to Women’s Freedom

When we speak of “women’s liberation,” we first have to determine what women are to be liberated from. What are the obstacles to their freedom? Perhaps the most pervasive—and the most subtly disempowering—is the limitation placed on the opportunities available to women for personal expression and achievement. In traditional cultures, and even in the West today, these limitations are considered almost intrinsic to the social order. An unspoken consensus prevails that casts women into stereotyped roles that severely hamper their freedom to realize their creative potentials.

Women are seen assigned by nature to be wives and mothers. They are caretakers of the family whose role in life is exhausted by the tasks of finding a good husband, bearing children, and maintaining the household. If women do get the chance to take up a career, the general view holds that they should serve in the caring professions—as nurses, teachers, or social workers—but beyond these, when it comes to the more demanding professions and positions of social leadership, the gates are largely closed against them. Continue reading

The Politics of Happiness: An Essay on the Global Happiness Conference

By Randy Rosenthal

A recent UN report ranks nations by way of their quota of happiness, utilizing a complex set of metrics. But can happiness actually be quantified? Several glitches in the ratings suggest any such effort, while revealing in some respects, will always be far from perfect.

The top 20 happiest countries (World Happiness Report 2019)

On Wednesday, March 20, 2019, the United Nations released the World Happiness Report. This includes an annual ranking of the happiest countries in the world, along with several essays about the relationship between government policy and individual happiness. A few weeks later, on April 13, the editor of the report, John F. Helliwell, participated in a panel at the Global Happiness Conference, held at Harvard Divinity School, and which I attended. Continue reading

Building Bridges for Poor Widows in the Punjab

By BGR Staff

Building Bridges India represents a bridge from the past to the future, from a patriarchal society to an egalitarian one in which women have role options, rights and responsibilities; a passage from despair to hope.

For over thirty years now, parts of Punjab have been stricken by a tragedy barely reported in the mainstream media: the suicides of small-scale farmers. A fatal combination of factors, including successive seasons of bad weather, the soaring cost of seeds and fertilizer, a falling water table, and the usurious rates imposed by moneylenders, have combined to make it impossible for them to sustain themselves on their ancestral lands. Seeing no way out, thousands have taken their own lives. Their deaths are tragedy enough. But for the widows and children they leave behind, life becomes a desperate struggle simply to survive.

Untrained, often illiterate and malnourished, burdened with their husbands’ debts yet without any way of earning an income, the women left behind–sometimes older, sometimes quite young–are responsible for housing and feeding themselves, their children and sometimes elderly relatives as well. Continue reading

Hot Meals and Mentoring for Poor Kids in Mongolia

By BGR Staff

One-third of Mongolia’s population experiences extreme poverty and is unable to afford basic food and shelter. The Tibetan monk, Ven. Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, was determined to do something about this.

Born in Eastern Tibet in 1939 to nomadic parents, Ven. Rinpoche received full monastic ordination in 1961 under His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He completed his formal studies in India and was awarded the highest degree of Geshe Lharampa, equivalent to a Doctorate in Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy. In 1995, the Dalai Lama asked Rinpoche to go to Mongolia to teach Buddhism to the Mongolian people. After his arrival in Mongolia, he set about finding ways to overcome the high levels of poverty he encountered there. He established Asral NGO in 2001 with the objective of keeping families together and preventing children from going onto the streets. Asral is the Mongolian word for “care.”
Continue reading

BGR Exceeds Its EWEC Target

By Tom Spies

 

In 2016  BGR made a commitment to the Every Woman Every Child initiative (EWEC) that it would help to advance EWEC’s global strategy through our projects.  Here is some background on EWEC:

Every Woman Every Child is a multi-stakeholder movement to implement the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, launched by the UN Secretary-General in September 2015 in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Since its launch in 2010, Every Woman Every Child has mobilized hundreds of partners for maximum effect, with hundreds of organizations having made commitments to advance the Global Strategy. The partners include governments and policymakers, donor countries and philanthropic institutions, the United Nations and other multilateral organizations, civil society, the business community, health workers and their professional associations, and academic and research institutions.

BGR had committed to expending $1,600,000 over the 5 years from 2016 through 2020 towards programs to advance the EWEC goals, benefiting an estimated 16,000 individuals.  A few days ago we made an interim measure of our progress to date, and found that after 3 years we have already exceeded our 5-year commitment, expending $1,844,317 towards the EWEC goals, and benefiting an estimated 30,000 individuals.

This is an achievement truly worth celebrating. From this you should know that your donations are part of a worldwide movement helping to ensure the health and well-being of women, children, and adolescents around the world. Thank you all for your compassionate concern in supporting this endeavor!

Tom Spies is Executive Director of Buddhist Global Relief.

 
 
 
 
 

Learning about Home Gardens, Nutrition, and Public Speaking in Vietnam

By Randy Rosenthal

With so many problems in the world, it sometimes feels like nothing we do can makes a difference. But Buddhist Global Relief (BGR) is showing that by improving the lives of individuals, we can in fact make a difference. A great example of this is BGR’s partnership with Helen Keller International (HKI) on the Enhanced Homestead Food Production (EHFP) project in Vietnam, which is now in its third year.

With BGR support, during 2018, HKI expanded their EHFP project to the provinces of Hoa Binh, Son La, and Lai Chau, which is one of the poorest areas of Vietnam. In July, the latter two provinces were heavily hit by tropical storm Son Tinh, which caused flash floods and landslides, but the program’s goals were successfully reached in all areas. These goals focused on alleviating hunger mainly through training mothers and pregnant women about nutrition and horticulture. Continue reading