Christmas bounty belies hard realities

Published 8:02 pm Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Perhaps if I were a preacher, which I’m decidedly not, and I offered a sermon, which this decidedly isn’t, I’d call it: “Christmas and The Farm Bill.”

While most of us in this country and in this state celebrate the birth of Christ with family feasts that call Norman Rockwell paintings to mind, the poor and the hungry remain with us.

The admonition is biblical, from both the Old and New Testaments. In Mark 14:7, we are told: “For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.”

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In Deuteronomy 15:11, the message is repeated: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.”

What do those passages of scripture have to do with the 2018 Farm Bill? Plenty.

Mississippi is no longer technically the poorest state in the union, according to the latest Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data. That designation belongs to West Virginia.

But we are next to the poorest state, ranking 49th. Mississippi’s 2.984 million people have a median household income of $43,529. One in five Mississippians or 19.8 percent live in poverty – the highest percentage in the nation.

Mississippi’s unemployment rate in January 2010 was 11.5 percent. After a steady decline, the state’s unemployment rate is currently 4.7 percent, less if not seasonally adjusted.

Economists consider unemployment numbers in that range as “full employment” – i.e., “everyone who wants a job has a job” or the lowest unemployment rate that won’t cause inflation.

While Mississippi’s jobs picture has dramatically improved and the state’s economic development efforts have been effective, the state continues to lag economically due to what can best be described as endemic poverty.

What is endemic poverty? According to Daniel Farr in the Encyclopedia of World Poverty, the term is defined as “persistent long-term poverty of a particular people or region that may span not just many years but may extend over generations.”

In Mississippi, that endemic poverty began during the Civil War and Reconstruction, continued through the Flood of 1927 and the Great Depression and stretched past Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill. Generational poverty has been part of the story, as has race, discrimination, and insularity.

For the latest year of available statistics, an average of 582,658 Mississippians received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits or food stamps each month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that number represented 83.4 percent of those Mississippians eligible to receive those benefits. The SNAP program pumped $810 million into Mississippi’s economy.

Early in the process when Republicans had control the House, the 2018 Farm Bill appeared headed for large cuts in the SNAP program and the attachment of measures to make it harder for SNAP beneficiaries to receive those benefits. But when the Democrats gained enough seats to be headed for control of the House in 116th Congress, a compromise was reached to get the Farm Bill passed in the waning days of the 115th Congress.

Despite demonstrable progress in jobs and economic development, Mississippi remains one of the poorest states in the nation. As the Bible teaches, the poor most decidedly will always be with us – and not just during the holiday season, when we seem particularly attuned to their needs but perhaps not as much in February and March?

The Farm Bill is about food and fiber production, to be sure, but it is also about nutrition and how this nation makes decisions about the needs of the poor. At Christmas, giving is somehow easier and less political. Would that we could hold tighter to that spirit for the rest of the year.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at