Why Food Stamps Matter: A Profile of Vernell Livingston

By Rev. Michael Livingston, Director, NCC Poverty Initiative

Vernell Livingston thanks God for getting up every morning “with a portion of good health.” She’s had the blessings of marriage and motherhood and she is in good health, though she is a diabetic, as she lives a life of modest contentment as a senior citizen.

Mrs. Livingston participated in the Food Stamp Challenge that launched the Fighting Poverty With Faith Mobilization last fall responding graciously to our invitation to her to guide congressional legislators on Capitol Hill and religious leaders on a shopping trip on the weekly allotment given to SNAP recipients ($31.50). The coincidence of our last names (we are not related) created a bond between us and she welcomed an opportunity to share more of her story.

The second eldest of 12 siblings, Mrs. Livingston has had a life of hard work for very little compensation. She was picking cotton and tobacco in South Carolina alongside her sharecropping father when she was 12 years old. She never went to college, indeed, she wasn’t able to finish high school so that she could help the family make ends meet and assist her mother with the raising of their large clan.

When her father suffered a stroke, her fate was sealed. She did back breaking work as a day laborer picking cotton and was exposed to toxic chemicals picking tobacco until she was eighteen or nineteen years old. The young Vernell moved north to Washington, DC with an aunt and cared for the aunt’s son for a few years before returning to South Carolina where she married a logger and gave birth to a daughter.

In the following years she worked several extremely low-paying jobs and after returning to Washington DC she spent most of her adult years working as a maid in the hotel industry.

Her last eight years working were as a floor manager for a motel chain. Chronic knee pain led to a full disability and eventually to two knee replacement operations on the same knee. She received disability checks until she began receiving Social Security benefits in 1991. In all her working years she never had an employer supplied pension plan and her low wages insured that her Social Security benefits would be meager.

When I asked Mrs. Livingston how much her monthly Social Security checks amounted to, she lowered her head sheepishly, paused, and said, “Reverend Livingston, I get $885 a month.”

I cannot say precisely how she felt, but any and all shame should be the province of a society that has not taken good care of those who have labored long and hard and been denied access to opportunities by familial necessity and the structural inequalities, racial and economic, so prevalent in our society.

Mrs. Livingston, many years a widow now, lives on $885 a month plus what she receives in SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Those benefits were cut, without explanation, from about $200 per month at the end of 2011 to $33 a month in January of this year.

Before the cut in SNAP benefits she had an annual income of $13,020; her income in 2012, after the cut, will be just over $11,000. She pays $181 a month in rent in a government subsidized senior housing complex and has a car note. After rent and car expenses, Vernell has about $500 per month for everything else. SNAP is a lifeline. She’s thankful for what she has so far received and worried about the recent cut and the awful possibility that more cuts could be coming.

The NCC’s Poverty Initiative works with other ecumenical and interfaith partners to ensure that programs that are lifelines for vulnerable people like Vernell Livingston. We are working to make certain people like Vernell are not further victimized as a result of the critical budget and tax decisions that will be made in the months to come and especially in the “Lame Duck” session of congress at the end of this year.

Your support for our work, your work really, is essential to the witness of people of faith in the 37 member communions of the National Council of Churches.

I wrote earlier that I was not related to Mrs. Livingston, though we share the same last name. To tell the whole truth, we are related, to each other and to you, through our belonging to the human family. We are all God’s family, make in God’s image, each one of us. I hope you will remember Vernell Livingston in your prayers and in your giving. (Click here to make a contribution to the Poverty Initiative of the NCC.)

Fighting Poverty with Faith is an annual mobilization of faith communities across the United States in common actions against poverty. Co-chaired by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Catholic Charities, and the National Council of Churches, the mission of Fighting Poverty with Faith is to educate the public and build political will to participate in the goal to cut U.S. poverty in half from 2010-2020.

Click here to sign up for more information and get involved in the Nov. 18-28, 2012 mobilization.

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