Beyond the Federal Budget: Hunger, Misogyny and the Absurdity of it All

Resistance to safety net programs like the expanded child tax credit, SNAP and WIC is rooted in racist, misogynistic, tired and offensive stereotypes that blame and shame people, rather than help them when they need it most.

House Speaker. Mike Johnson (R-La.) and other House Republicans discuss the GOP agenda on Capitol Hill on March 6, 2024, ahead of President Biden’s State of the Union address the following day. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Anyone who has ever taken a high school civics class knows that the most basic function of the U.S. Congress is to fund the government. Exercising the “power of the purse” is one of the most fundamental duties of the legislative branch.

Yet here we are in March, and they are just now getting around to it. 

As I’ve been saying for months, a government shutdown would be deadly for the millions of Americans facing food insecurity. Yet, extreme House Republicans have been dangling a threat of shutdown for months, playing politics with the lives of real people. In addition to being disruptive, wasteful and unnecessary, a government shutdown would have a deep and scarring impact on those facing food insecurity and poverty. This is not a game.

Playing Politics with Hunger

One of the most troubling “sticking points” of the budget negotiations involved funding levels for vital nutrition assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). These programs are crucial tools to fight hunger, and everyone knows it.

Allow me to explain.

Before the pandemic, about 40 million Americans were facing food insecurity, and that figure skyrocketed during the early days of COVID-19. We all remember the photos of miles-long lines of cars waiting for food pantry distributions. Many of these images went viral, illustrating the fact that hunger is widespread—hunger is systemic—hunger can happen to anyone, and there is no way for charitable organizations to meet the immense need. 

So we at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger (and many others) pushed Congress to act. Despite a difficult political environment, Congress and the Biden administration made several important policy decisions to boost safety net benefits, which proved to stabilize and even reduce the number of hungry people in the U.S.

Frankly, these were policies that had long been priorities for the anti-hunger movement, and the sense of urgency conferred on policymakers by the pandemic finally allowed them to be realized. And it worked—even during a time of unprecedented hunger. As the many crises precipitated by the pandemic began to resolve (unemployment, health emergencies, business shutdowns and more), the rate of hungry Americans returned to the “normal” egregious number of about 34 million.

But most of these changes were temporary, and they were rolled back (some prematurely) when the public health emergency ended, despite the ongoing massive need. Predictably, once they ended, hunger rose dramatically.

  • In 2023, those experiencing food insecurity rose from 34 million to 44 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) most recent figures.
  • These figures indicate that 12.8 percent of American households are facing hunger, with especially high rates among Black families (22.4 percent), Hispanic families (20.8 percent), and households headed by single mothers (33.1 percent). The USDA does not even publish the rates among commonly-overlooked populations like Indigenous communities and those in Puerto Rico and the territories.

Nutrition safety net programs work. Government intervention can work. We have seen that temporary improvements, benefit boosts, and flexibilities can help reverse the course of hunger in this country—but too often these are temporary fixes for challenges that require permanent systemic changes. My organization built a virtual museum to illustrate that when our leaders prioritize smart policies, we move forward as a country.

We should not have to beg lawmakers to fund federal programs like WIC that curb hunger, improve birth outcomes, reduce infant mortality and promote healthy growth and child development. But that’s exactly what we had to do, because as advocates we have no choice—whatever it takes, we will continue fighting for as long as it’s needed.

So What’s in the Long-Awaited Government Funding Bill?

This week, nearly six months into the federal fiscal year, Congress finally revealed its plan to fund several federal departments including the USDA, which oversees our country’s nutrition safety net programs. MAZON and our partners in the anti-hunger community are relieved to see that the bill includes sufficient funding for SNAP, enabling over 40 million Americans to feed themselves and their families with dignity and choice.

We are thrilled that we prevailed in getting sufficient funding for programs like SNAP and WIC—but it should have been easy.

Aside from being a central part of our country’s social safety net, SNAP bolsters local economies, supports working families and improves health outcomes. Funding and protecting the integrity of this program is a no-brainer. But at every turn, we had to fight against “poison pills”—onerous work requirements for those who are struggling to find work and efforts to use food insecure Americans as guinea pigs in experiments designed to force rather than encourage healthier eating.

The bill also provides an additional $1.03 billion for WIC, which reflects the current reality of increased needs and rising food costs. This funding is essential to ensuring assistance for the 7 million mothers, babies and young children who receive modest food benefits—mostly fruits and vegetables.

Don’t get me wrong. We are thrilled that we prevailed in getting sufficient funding for programs like WIC, but it should have been easy—not an endless effort during which we had to dodge other “poison pill” amendments that sought to push a horrifying misogynist agenda that House Republicans know are otherwise DOA in this country.

Chief among our victories? This bill does not restrict access to the abortion pill mifepristone.

You read that correctly: House Republicans were trying to use the agriculture appropriations process to attack and undermine women’s reproductive rights as they continue to create a culture in which women are subject to the draconian beliefs of a reactionary minority. They were trying to both restrict abortion access and cut nutrition assistance from low-income mothers, infants and young children. We will not stand by silently as they create a new wave of the feminization of poverty.

House Republicans were trying to use the agriculture appropriations process to attack and undermine women’s reproductive rights.

Mike Johnson’s Flawed Ideology

At the helm of this cruel charge is, of course, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.). His clear disregard for safety net programs is another symptom of his blatant misogyny. He has made it apparent that this is a philosophy he embraces: rejecting government support for people—mostly women—and saying, ‘You’re on your own.’

Although our systems create circumstances that lead many women to struggle with hunger and poverty, Johnson and other extreme Republicans do not seem to be willing to provide meaningful support to respond to the crises their own economic policies have created. This strategy is being led by a fundamentalist notion of gender roles: Women care for children, while men work. This view of women is antithetical to women as people.

The truth is that you simply cannot talk about programs designed to help women without acknowledging sexism and the numerous ways that Johnson and others are trying to strip women of their agency and freedom.

And these safety net programs do not only benefit individual women and their children—they benefit local communities and society as a whole. In other words, supporting women is inextricably linked to the success of society.

This strategy is being led by a fundamentalist notion of gender roles: Women care for children, while men work. This view of women is antithetical to women as people.

It’s also important to note that Johnson is trying to impose this terrifying philosophy of theocracy in the name of Christianity. Frankly, this should offend all people of faith. And it’s preposterous.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, recently called out Johnson in an eloquent and polite manner: “You are a man of faith. I believe I am a woman of faith. And what our faith traditions, how they guide us, is that we were raised to build bridges, not to divide people. To care for the vulnerable, to feed the hungry, to welcome the stranger, to act as a community.” 

We at MAZON share Rep. DeLauro’s centering of faith-based values in our pursuit of justice. For nearly 40 years, we have approached anti-hunger advocacy from the values-driven perspective that every person has inherent dignity and must not be judged by their circumstances, including whether they are facing food insecurity. Every person was created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God, and has inherent value. Every person deserves dignity and respect. Every person must be able to feed themselves and their families.

Approving the Expanded Child Tax Credit

It has been particularly troubling to see Johnson and others using misguided language and implying those “who deserve assistance,” versus those who do not. 

People deserve food. People must be able to access the assistance they need and deserve while being treated with dignity and respect. It is reprehensible that some policymakers continue to perpetuate racist, misogynistic, tired and offensive stereotypes that blame and shame people rather than help them when they need it most.

Hopefully soon we will all be able to sigh with relief that our dysfunctional Congress averted a government shutdown, but the work is far from over. The Senate must immediately approve the expanded child tax credit, which recently passed the House with a broad bipartisan margin. This would help 16 million children whose families are currently unable to receive this federal assistance. Nearly half of these children live with a single parent, which usually means a single mother.

The Senate must immediately approve the expanded child tax credit, which recently passed the House with a broad bipartisan margin.

The child tax credit is another proven and powerful tool to address hunger and poverty. Improving it—and ultimately making it permanent—will allow families to plan for the future with confidence that the federal government will be there to support them in times of need. We have seen time and again that safety net programs like this can lift people out of poverty, delivering meaningful income boosts to millions of families facing hunger. It’s another no-brainer.

We will also be watching carefully as Congress starts discussing the next Farm Bill, which presents another critical moment to strengthen anti-hunger programs like SNAP. Policymakers must use this opportunity to remove barriers to assistance for the millions of people in need and advance long-overdue solutions to various food security challenges. You can bet that MAZON will be calling on Congress to enact policies that are informed by compassion and humanity toward those facing hunger—regardless of circumstance.

Up next:

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Abby J. Leibman is the president & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and was a co-founder of the California Women’s Law Center. Inspired by Jewish values and ideals, MAZON is a national advocacy organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel. Abby has received, among other honors, the California Women Lawyer's Faye Stender Award, Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles' Ernestine Stalhut Award, UCSD's Top 100 Influential Alumni Award, USC Law Center's Public Interest Advocate Award and the So. California Employer Round Table's Carol F. Schiller Award. She has a J.D. from Hastings College of Law and graduated magna cum laude from U.C. San Diego with a B.A. in political science.