Spotlight Exclusives

The Hardest Hit in the South Call for Help

Greg Kaufmann Greg Kaufmann, posted on

As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signals that no coronavirus relief package will be considered before the election, Southerners are speaking out. Spearheaded by Stacey Abrams, the SouthStrong coalition—175 Southern organizations, scholars, and community groups working for an equitable pandemic response—has released a new report, “2,300 SOUTHERN VOICES Call for Help.” It lays bare the urgent need for additional pandemic aid.

What makes this policy report a little different from most is that it features the voices of people who are among the hardest hit by the health and economic crises. We know from data who is being hit the hardest, but we rarely hear from them directly about the policy solutions they want from their elected representatives.

SouthStrong, along with Propel (maker of the Fresh EBT app that helps users manage their public assistance benefits), heard from 2,300 SNAP-recipients in 12 southern states about their experiences during the pandemic, public policies that have helped them, and what they want to tell policymakers at this moment.

The people surveyed differ in terms of the particular circumstances that led to their struggles—from job losses or cuts in work hours, to child care needs, illness, disability, and more. However, they overwhelmingly tell policymakers that what they need right now is help with rent, utilities, and food. To be sure, there are other pressing needs such as child care assistance, transportation, and help with medical bills, but none are cited with the consistency of these three basic needs. This is not a surprise considering deepening hunger, housing insecurity, and rising utility costs as people spend more time at home.

Here are just a few of the responses found in the surveys:

“We either need jobs or money for food, rent, utilities and other needs!! Can’t take away both and expect people to live!!!”—Kathren in Arkansas.

“I’m a single mother of two children. I have taken a pay cut and I’m trying to work as many hours as I can. I’m behind on all my bills, and will be homeless with my children if I can’t catch up.”—Holly in North Carolina.

“I need to find help with my electric and water. Husband lost his job due to covid19 and has not found another yet due to his age and health.”Marsha in Kentucky.

“It hurts ’cause I can’t feed my kids. No one is helping me. No one. I feel helpless.” –Ivy in Mississippi.

There is some positive news in the survey, with nearly 60 percent of respondents crediting policymakers from both parties for implementing programs that have made a significant difference in their ability to manage the pandemic. They cite the extra SNAP allotment, P-EBT to replace lost school meals, the one-time stimulus check, and the extra $600 weekly unemployment insurance as helping families keep food on the table and not lose their homes. It is notable, however, that most of the assistance people benefited from has expired or is about to expire.

“We never went hungry.”—SG in South Carolina.

“When they were doing the extra $600 [in unemployment benefits] I was able to catch up on bills. P-EBT helped so I could put food on the table.”—Dnai in North Carolina.

“It’s too bad that we won’t continue this level of support. I’m not the only person who goes hungry more days than not with $14 to $44 dollars a month in EBT benefits.” –Carolyn in South Carolina.

The respondents also voiced a kind of commonsense feeling that assistance should last as long as the pandemic does, and expressed frustration with a perceived lack of urgency among their political leaders. In the absence of government action, 55 percent report that they are receiving help from family or friends, including nearly 59 percent of African Americans.

“Continue the programs while the pandemic is still in effect.” –Kenshea in Georgia

“Please if we can stay with the maximum [relief] amount each month until the coronavirus is over, that will be helpful. Not everyone is working their full-time hours.” –Clarissa in Florida

“We can’t wait on you to make up your mind to do the right thing. We are losing our homes and jobs now.”–Kaycee in Florida

Finally, among these southerners was a clear and consistent plea to elected officials to be more connected to their constituents—to have more empathy for their experiences—and a sense that a greater connectedness would lead to action.

“Listen to your people and actually hear what we’re saying.” –Ashley in Georgia.

“Come out and speak with us so you can see the struggle and feel our pain.”—Jerri in Alabama.

“They need to act as if they are actually suffering like we the people are. They don’t seem to care because it seems they are not being mentally, physically, financially, etc. affected as we are.”–Breanna in Louisiana

“It’s pretty selfish to have more than enough and not care if anyone else has anything or not. We’re better than this!”–Cheryl in Kentucky

Whether we are better than this remains an open question. Listening to what people are saying they need, and responding, would provide a much-needed answer.

Greg Kaufmann is a Contributing Writer to The Nation and an advisor to the SouthStrong Campaign.

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