Category Archives: Women’s Issues

The Heavy Cost of Revenge Porn

Last week, the fight against revenge porn had several major victories, as Vermont, Oregon and Texas all passed laws criminalizing revenge porn. Google also announced that it would allow victims of revenge porn to request that their images be removed from its search results. Revenge porn is the practice of publicly sharing nude or sexual photos and videos taken in the context of an intimate relationship in order to seek revenge on a former partner. These photos can be uploaded to a website with a global audience within minutes, but the repercussions for the victim can last a lifetime. In 59% of cases, these images are posted alongside private information such as full names, links to social media profiles, phone numbers and home addresses, leaving the subject open to a wide range of harassment, discrimination, stalking and violence.

Revenge porn victims suffer from severe consequences after having their private photos shared online.  One survey found that 93% of revenge porn victims reported significant emotional distress, and many experienced psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety. Victims can also experience major threats to their economic security. Their photos are widely accessible online and if co-workers or employers find the images, it may put their career in jeopardy. Many victims report losing their job after their pictures were discovered and some offenders will even send the photos directly to victims’ workplaces in an attempt to get them fired. These pictures may also complicate the search for a new job, since 80% of employers conduct web searches on potential new hires before an interview. A photo posted with identifying information may come up in search results, influencing employers’ hiring decisions. Some victims must also take drastic and costly steps to protect their safety, including changing their names, leaving their jobs or schools, or moving to new residences to escape pervasive harassment.

In states without revenge porn laws, victims may face staggering financial hurdles in their efforts to have their photos removed from the internet. Many victims have to rely on civil suits to attempt to receive compensation, and must hire a lawyer for a lengthy legal battle that may draw even more attention to the photos. Others may claim that they have a copyright over nude images that they took themselves, and send takedown notices to each website hosting their images, which may also require a lawyer to draft an effective letter. The cost of these legal services may be prohibitive for many victims. Even for those who can afford an attorney, winning a single suit or having one website take their photo down is not the end of the battle. Photos can be continually shared and reposted, making legal efforts to locate and remove the photos a process that can last years. This can exhaust a victim’s resources without any guarantee that the photos and the resulting harm and stigma will be gone for good.

Fortunately, the national climate around revenge porn is changing. States are rapidly implementing revenge porn laws that give victims a greater opportunity for justice and discourage perpetration, and sharing revenge porn is now a criminal offense in 23 states. Google’s new policy may also have a powerful impact in freeing victims from the fear that their images will pop up in web searches by employers, family, friends or romantic partners, particularly if other major search engines follow Google’s example. While the costs and consequences of revenge porn can be high, these changes provide hope that soon victims across the country will have the protections they need to take back control of their lives and keep revenge porn from damaging their happiness, safety and economic security.

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Improving Women’s Health Requires Fully Addressing Violence

The first thing most people think of when asked about the economic cost of abuse is health care. This is not surprising considering the enduring stereotypes – the image of a domestic violence victim with a black eye and broken arm or the rape victim going to the ER after being attacked by a stranger. This immediate focus on health care costs is also not without good reason: intimate partner violence (IPV) results in two million injuries for US women every year and medical costs ranging from $2.3 billion to $7 billion within one year of violence. Consequently, women experiencing physical abuse faced health care costs 42% higher than non-abused women.

It is essential that women receive affordable, quality treatment for these health costs so that they may remain safe and economically secure, which means looking beyond the stereotypes to address every aspect of health-related impacts, including the following.

  • Mental health care: Whether survivors experience depression, anxiety or PTSD, mental health needs can be just as costly and impactful as more visible physical needs. They may also affect survivors’ ability to maintain their jobs and care for themselves or their families.
  • Long-term health care: Health care costs continue to be 19% higher for survivors than for non-abused women even five or more years after physical violence. Mental health needs, especially for sexual assault survivors, may also take years to appear, long after survivors are eligible for crime victim compensation (CVC) or other financial assistance. In addition, trauma from domestic and sexual violence often leads survivors to engage in other risky behaviors, such as abusing drugs or alcohol and unsafe sex, with far-reaching consequences on their health.
  • Access to health insurance: In order for survivors to weather the added costs of physical and mental health care without falling into dangerous economic insecurity, they must have adequate health insurance. However, survivors may receive insurance through their abusive partner, which complicates their decisions to leave or seek treatments that their abuser could find out about. Survivors with employment-based insurance may be at risk of losing it if their jobs are in jeopardy from an abuser targeting them at work. Survivors may also be suffering abuse or harassment at the workplace in order to keep their jobs and health insurance.

This week is National Women’s Health Week and WOW is thrilled that “Talk to my doctor about any domestic or interpersonal violence” is a recommendation for every age and that mental health is a priority. Considering the immense impact of violence on health, it is critical that doctors have the training to respond to domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. Rather than checking off whether they asked about domestic violence, they should be able to recognize the signs of each form of violence and take appropriate action, such as by directing survivors to mental health professionals and community resources. Adequate and supportive policies are also needed at every level. Health care professionals, direct service providers and policymakers should account for the importance of health insurance for survivors’ economic security and the added complications that survivors may face in acquiring or accessing it. In addition, policies should address the long-term and diverse health impacts of violence. For example, survivors would benefit from having access to CVC funds long after the crime itself and insurance coverage for contraception or STI treatment that may be needed following reproductive coercion or sexual assault.

National Women’s Health Week is a good start towards a great mission, but until the proper training, infrastructure and policies are in place, a simple annual check-up is not going to significantly address the health-related consequences of violence.

 

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Why Workplace Leave and Flexibility Matter

Working as an advocate for low-income families at Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), I have always been grateful for a good job, a safe home and some stability. I consider myself incredibly fortunate and am thankful every day because I know that in a moment’s notice, this all can change. Economic insecurity is just one emergency away for so many of us. A year ago I faced that emergency.

Pregnant with my first child, I knew my life was in for a big change. My husband and I consciously decided to start a family at a point in our lives when we felt stable and reasonably economically secure. I knew things would be difficult – like most new parents I worried about my ability to balance work with family responsibilities and the cost of raising a child – but I never imagined nor was I prepared for the challenge we faced. While traveling to upstate New York and nearing the end of my fifth month of pregnancy, my water broke. After being admitted into a hospital more than seven hours from home, the doctors were able to stabilize my and my baby’s condition. We suddenly found ourselves facing a life-threatening emergency with no option of returning home for an unknown amount of time.

After being admitted into the hospital, I called my boss to explain the situation. I did this without fear of losing my job. WOW made accommodations so that – per my request – I could work remotely from the hospital and allowed me to maintain a flexible schedule to accommodate the uncertainty of my situation. Fortunately, my husband received the same response from his employer and he was able to stay in Syracuse with us. With my job secure, I still had health insurance to cover the high cost of the specialized care that we would need. Our combined medical bills would total well over a half million dollars, a sum that would have bankrupted us without excellent coverage.

How much did these workplace accommodations and good health benefits mean to the economic security and emotional well being of my family? At 24 weeks gestation our son faced terrible odds – survival rates were between 50% and 70% and he would likely face moderate to severe long-term health problems. Not having to worry about my job or ability to pay the hospital bills reduced my stress, allowing me to remain strong and positive, which certainly prolonged my pregnancy and affected my son’s well being. While most women experiencing their water breaking so early into their pregnancy deliver within 48 hours, we were able to delay labor and buy him precious time. Three weeks after being admitted to the hospital my son, Henry, a tiny 2 pounds 7 ounce fighter, was born 13 weeks prematurely.

Being away from home with no option to be transferred to a local hospital due to the precariousness of Henry’s health, we were faced with many more unexpected expenses, particularly a need for temporary housing. Organizations like the Ronald McDonald House of Central New York, where we lived for three months during my son’s stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, provided us with housing and food at just a fraction of the cost we would have paid for a hotel room. Furthermore, because of Henry’s low-birth weight he was eligible to receive Social Security Insurance benefits during his hospitalization. While the process of accessing this benefit was incredibly cumbersome and frustrating, this support helped us cover the some of the additional expenses we faced being away from home.

2014 was the most difficult and heart-wrenching year of my life, but I am happy to say despite those many terrifying months and hardships, my son is now a thriving and healthy one-year-old. Unlike many others, our story had a happy ending.

I am sharing my story, not only because I am grateful, but also because this demonstrates why all families need these types of protections and supports when things go wrong. Employer flexibility and the ability to work remotely enabled me and my husband to keep our jobs and benefits with no undue hardship on our workplaces. Having health insurance meant that we were able to afford the care that saved my son’s life. Community services and safety net programs helped to provide support to us in a time of need and reduced the amount of debt we accumulated. All of these elements are critical for family economic security and without them my life might be very different today. I am incredibly fortunate to still have my job, not be crippled with debt, and most importantly that our irrepressible Henry is with us today. I don’t want our experience to be the exception, it should be the rule.

SGB and Henry

 

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Promoting Women’s Economic Security: Acknowledging the Effects of Trauma

Since its inception in 1964, Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) has helped women create pathways and overcome barriers to economic security through direct services and advocacy driven by research. Our roots are grounded in providing job training and workforce development through a gender lens. While we now primarily use this expertise to provide technical assistance and training to organizations across the country, we still maintain connections with some local service providers here in Washington, DC.

In 2008, we began a partnership with the District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH), which provides emergency and long-term safe housing, and innovative homelessness prevention services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. WOW provides career and economic counseling to survivors in their programs. While the physical and health impacts of abuse were apparent, the economic impacts of abuse often proved to be more of a barrier to their safety and recovery. Many of the survivors we work with faced a number of economic consequences as a result of their abuser’s actions including:

  • Job loss or lost wages due to interference from the abuser at work or time off to recover from abuse;
  • Unfinished education due to missed classes or a need to relocate;
  • Eviction and damaged tenant history due to law enforcement involvement;
  • Debt from healthcare, relocation costs and replacing damaged property;
  • Damaged credit and identity theft;
  • Loss of personal property; and,
  • Coercion into crime such as dealing drugs, fraud and/or prostitution.

By deliberately destroying survivors’ ability to be economically secure, abusers often eliminate the very resources they need to escape abuse and recover. The survivors we serve are lucky in the sense that they were able to enter a transitional housing program that provides them with safety and stability while working to rebuild their lives. Those who can’t access the limited resources available to survivors are often unable to break free from violence and abuse. But even when survivors do find these programs, the economic impacts of abuse may be so significant that they may never fully recover without the right interventions.

Providing immediate safety is first and foremost. But providing safe housing is not enough. Survivors need health and counseling services to help them cope with trauma. Once physical and mental health needs are addressed, we can then begin the long process of helping survivors recover from the economic impacts of abuse. Only then are survivors ready to develop and implement a plan that will help them become more economically secure and independent in the future. This often requires rebuilding damaged credit, getting training or education so that they have the skill-set needed to obtain good jobs that pay a living wage and offers benefits, accessing income support to provide interim stability and getting restitution to recover financial losses. Temporary and flexible financial support is critically important. Few jobs pay wages that would enable a single worker with children to cover all their monthly expenses, and those that do require years of training or experience. This reality often leaves survivors with few options but to remain in an abusive situation.

The economic consequences of violence and abuse are significant and complex. If we are to effectively promote women’s economic security, we must take into account and address the impacts of violence against women. When one in four women experiences rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, addressing the intersections of violence/abuse with economic security must be a priority for all organizations seeking to eradicate poverty and promote gender equity.

 

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Herstory Matters: Break Down the Firewall for Women in IT

The first time history really made sense to me was in the seventh grade, when I first started learning about the struggle for women’s suffrage. I recognized that the story of the fight for the right to vote, and of the women who were leading it was inextricably linked to my life. We didn’t have a women’s history month then, and I didn’t realize how little of it would be part of my formal education. That’s why I still get excited when March rolls around and we get a whole month focused on women’s history- or as I prefer to call it, herstory.

I especially like International Women’s Day (IWD), because it links women across the world in recognition of the interconnectedness of our struggles across cultures, nations, races, and geography. I love knowing that IWD has its roots in the U.S. women’s trade union movement. March 8th was the date of two worker demonstrations, one of garment workers in 1857, and another fifty-one years later in 1908, of women in the needle trades. In each case women workers marched and picketed for better, safer working conditions and equal rights for women. This herstory is important to me because it serves as a reminder of the power of organizing to create social change. We still have a long way to go towards women’s full equality, especially in the workplace, but much of what these women fought for – an eight-hour day, women’s right to vote, and laws prohibiting child labor – are protections we now take for granted, at least in this country.

WOW’s history also is rooted in working women coming together and organizing for change. As we celebrate WOW’s 50th anniversary we have been digging up some of the stories of our founders that describe WOW’s evolution. It was in the seventies that WOW started to analyze the problems of occupational segregation by gender. This was a direct result of finding that traditional women’s jobs such as clerical and nurses’ aides did not offer wages that would lead women to economic security. It didn’t take long for it to be clear that it was in non-marginal jobs, jobs traditionally held by men, that women could find economic security. In addition to better wages, those jobs offered on the job training and future upward mobility. Not only did women embrace these new opportunities wholeheartedly, it signaled a profound shift for WOW, into the policy arena, where we began to fight to expand and enforce equal employment laws and to ensure that public employment and job training programs treated women equitably.

It wasn’t easy back then; there was resistance from employers, male workers, policymakers. WOW found that even the regulations requiring federal contractors to set goals and timetables for women’s inclusion in male-dominated jobs were often unenforced and public job training programs still segregated women into low-wage sectors. WOW crafted sex equity language for the Department of Labor that recognized that training funds could be used to address the needs of special populations, including women. It was known as the “WOW paragraph.”

Forty years later, WOW is still in the forefront of opening up nontraditional jobs to women and continuing to make herstory. While we can definitely point to progress, it is a bit alarming to look back at our history and realize we are still fighting some of the same battles WOW took on in the seventies and eighties. However, history reminds us of the example of our foremothers who fought for over sixty years for women’s suffrage. Although the change seems long in coming, the every little step and each one of our efforts brings us closer to equality. We are taking one of those steps this week as WOW tackles the low representation of women in IT.

Women were only 8.9 percent of hardware computer programmers and only 19 percent of software computer programmers in 2013. Nevertheless, with some reminders from our herstory we learn that these jobs haven’t always been difficult for women to enter. In fact, last year, WOW’s Matt Unrath posted a blog about the computer programmers history forgot – women. His blog, following an NPR report on the same topic, describes the roles of Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Jean Jennings Bartik in the expansion of modern computing. We Facebooked, tweeted, and instagrammed the blog and our intern took a Vine of our CEO trying to send a Snap Chat thanking Matt for his post. And we can thank many of the women you can read about here for starting our culture down the path to that sentence even making sense to anyone!

As we enter the second full week of Women’s History Month, WOW is hosting the New Jersey Forum on Women in Information Technology at Essex County College. We’re bringing together experts in community college instruction, representatives from the workforce development system, members of local government, employers and students to address women’s underrepresentation in the IT sector. We won’t be marching and picketing in the streets like our foremothers, but we will be carrying on the struggle of women for good work and full equality in the workplace through education, coalition building and promoting effective strategies for equitable workforce training. Moreover, we will be encouraged by the knowledge of our herstory, that each of these steps matter!

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America Saves – Or Not

The end of America Saves Week (February 23-28, 2015) should not be an excuse to suspend our efforts to (1) save, (2) spread the word on the importance of saving for retirement and other purposes, and (3) continue working to remove barriers to saving. Low and inadequate retirement savings and/or lack of access to 401(k)s, pensions, and other savings platforms result in increased dependence and pressure on our Social Security system. This is a crucial issue for all Americans, but especially for women. WOW’s research shows that half of all women age 65 and older living independently in the community experience economic insecurity—with much higher percentages for women of color.

There have been efforts on both the national and state levels to address barriers to saving for retirement—with uneven results. For example:

  • In response to data showing that “one third of people (36%) in the U.S. have nothing saved for retirement”, and “14% of people ages 65 and older have no retirement savings”, the US Department of Treasury launched the myRA savings program in December, 2014 –a no fee, no hidden cost account–intended to provide a “simple, safe, and affordable retirement savings option” for working Americans.
  • In February 2015, President Obama announced that he had asked the Department of Labor to modernize its rules under ERISA to ensure that investment advisers do not offer financial advice tainted by  conflict of interest, and that they put  hardworking Americans’ interests first. It is estimated that $17 billion is lost each year due to conflicted investment advice.
  • In January 2014, a bill was introduced in West Virginia’s legislature to establish the West Virginia Voluntary Employee Retirement Accounts (VERA) Program, which would expand access to retirement plans to all employees and employers who wish to participate. According to H. B. 4375  nearly fifty percent of West Virginia workers have no access to employer-based retirement plans. However, despite vigorous advocacy by West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy (WVCBP) and other groups, opposition led by the insurance industry prevailed and the legislation died.
  • The Minnesota’s Women’s Economic Security Agenda (WESA), a multi-issue campaign mounted by the Minnesota Women’s Consortium—another WOW partner—and other advocates, resulted in legislation that included creation of a Minnesota Secure Choice Retirement Savings Plan.  In February 2014, HF 2419 and its companion Senate bill, SF 2078, were introduced to establish such a plan; in the end, however, only a study of the issue was commissioned.
  • In January 2015, Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a bill creating the Illinois Secure Choice Savings Program Act. The Act is intended to promote “greater retirement savings for private-sector employees in a convenient, low-cost, and portable manner.”
  • In March 2012, Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts signed a bill into law that provides retirement options for nonprofit organizations. This new law’s effective date was January 1, 2014 and applies to the “not-for-profit employer “who employs “not more than 20 persons…”

Having access to retirement savings plans/programs during one’s working years, and being assured of non-biased investment advice by financial advisors can make a big impact on economic security in retirement.  WOW commends and joins with those at the state and national levels who are working to bring these reforms about.

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Job Loss Common for Survivors

The Economic Security for Survivors Project team kicked off 2015 with a training and technical assistance meeting in Forsyth, Georgia in partnership with the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Sarah Gonzalez Bocinski and Robin Thompson met with a group of law enforcement officers and advocates to discuss the economic impact intimate partner and sexual violence has on the ability of survivors to be safe, seek justice and recover. From a lack of adequate financial resources, to job loss, to crushing debt, participants shared examples in which they had seen these many economic barriers complicate a survivor’s ability to move forward.

One particular issue that was continually raised during the meeting was the impact abuse had on the ability of survivors to maintain or seek employment. Advocates and victims alike shared stories about job loss due to an abuser’s tactics and resulting trauma. They expressed frustration at how little recourse there is to address the loss of the very lifeline that could enable survivors to leave an abuse relationship. Georgia, like many states, offers few workplace protections and accommodations for victims of intimate partner violence, sexual assault or stalking. The ability to take time off to deal with abuse or violence without the threat of job loss or employer retaliation, accommodations that allow survivors to be safer at work, and access to Unemployment Insurance when survivors do lose their job are integral to their ability to be economically secure and free of violence.

A study in Maine found that 60% of survivors either quit or lost their jobs as a result of abuse. Reasons for termination included diminish productivity, emotional trauma, the need to seek safety, concerns for children or coworkers, and abuser interference at work. The study included the story of a survivor whose abuser –also a co-worker– broke her bone then went to work early to tell “his side of the story” to the employer before she arrived at work later because she needed medical care. She was fired on the spot. Unfortunately this story is not uncommon and the impact on survivor safety and their ability to achieve independence is devastating. Protections against employer discrimination and workplace policies that guarantee a survivor’s rights to address abuse without repercussions are necessary to make sure that survivors like the woman in Maine and those we encountered in Georgia can stay employed. This will give them a greater chance of having the financial resources and stability to escape and rebuild their lives.

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Women Veterans Are Still Fighting For Economic Security

We celebrate Veteran’s Day by honoring the sacrifices the men and women of our military have made.  Yet it is equally important to honor their service by ensuring that they have routes to economic security when they return from their service.  However, this latter celebration is still not a reality for all veterans.

Recently released US Bureau of Labor Statistics data highlights some significant challenges that women veterans face upon their return.  While the good news is that the overall unemployment rate fell for male and female veterans over the past year, the bad news is that the unemployment rate for Gulf-War era II veterans remained strikingly high. And even more troubling is that within that group the unemployment rate for women is almost double that of male veterans (6.2 percent for men and 11.2 percent for women).

Source: US BLS, 2014

Source: US BLS, 2014

This data is quite alarming.  Younger female veterans are returning from their service only to find themselves without jobs and far from economic security.  This is unacceptable. We need to invest in employment and training programs, along with supportive services, that provide routes for female veterans to transition to career pathways.  One such route is access to nontraditional occupations (NTO)—such as those in the sciences, building trades, and technology. Women continue to be underrepresented in these fields, and these are industries that offer economic opportunities. Women veterans are particularly poised to succeed in these training programs and jobs.  Many of the technical expertises they mastered while in military service could transfer to work in NTO.  In addition, women veterans have also gained important skills navigating a traditionally male workplace, and prepare them for NTO.

So yes, we should celebrate our veterans’ accomplishments today, but tomorrow we need to fight for their economic security on the home front. The new unemployment data—with its clear gender disparities—must be a call to action for all of us to work to ensure that on Veterans Day in 2015 we will have lowered veteran’s unemployment rates and closed the significant gender unemployment rate gap.  The best celebration will be that of true economic security for the women who have sacrificed so much.

 

Photo Credit: Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs

Photo Credit: Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs

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I’m “Not on the Menu”: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

Living off tips not only contributes to high levels of economic insecurity for workers and their families; it also makes all workers, and in particular women, vulnerable to a great deal of inappropriate behavior from customers, co-workers, and management. In collaboration with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Forward Together, and several other organizations, Wider Opportunities for Women today released the report The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry.  This report dramatically details how sexual harassment is endemic to the restaurant industry.  One of the most powerful findings is that the tipping structure – where workers are paid a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour—creates an environment and a dynamic that actually fosters sexual harassment as part of the work environment.

Surveying workers throughout the country, it is staggering to learn that two-thirds of female workers and over half of male workers had experienced some form of sexual harassment from management; nearly 80% of women and 70% of men experienced some form of sexual harassment from co-workers; and nearly 80% of women and 55% of men experienced some form of sexual harassment from customers.  And ALL restaurant workers in states that have a sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, report higher rates of sexual harassment, than workers in states that pay a higher minimum wage.

Why is the tipping structure so important to this? Since restaurant workers living off tips are forced to rely on customers for their income rather than their employer, these workers must often tolerate inappropriate behavior from customers, co-workers, and management. Not surprisingly then, the restaurant industry is the single largest source of sexual harassment claims in the U.S.  While seven percent of American women work in the restaurant industry, more than a third of all sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) come from the restaurant industry. What is even more disturbing is that the high levels of complaints to the EEOC may actually underreport the industry’s rate of sexual harassment. Restaurant  workers reported that sexual  harassment is “kitchen talk,” a “normalized” part of the work environment.  And many restaurant workers are reluctant to publicly acknowledge  their experiences with sexual harassment.  This is the everyday work life for the 11 million restaurant workers in the United States.

Close to 20 years ago, when I conducted my own ethnographic research on restaurant workers, tipped workers earned the same sub-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour that workers today are paid.  And the restaurant workers I spoke with, almost two decades ago, talked about the ways that sexual harassment and sexual behaviors were institutionalized into the work environment.  So despite the passing of 20 years, some things have just remained the same. Tipped workers continue to remain vulnerable—both in terms of their economic security and the prevalence of sexual harassment–in America’s restaurants.  Isn’t it about time we do something about this?  Not only is it time to raise the minimum wage and eliminate the tipped sub-minimum wage so that workers can earn enough to support themselves and their families, but we need to improve the working conditions for the people who serve our food and mix our drinks.

roc

 

 

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Hunger Action Month: September 2014

September is Hunger Action Month, and New Jersey’s advocates and legislators have been garnering attention to the plight of the state’s seniors.

According to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger’s report, The State of Senior Hunger in America 2012, “the fraction of seniors under the threat of hunger increased nearly 30% from 2007-2012.” Unfortunately, the impact of food insecurity among seniors is sometimes downplayed or forgotten. One in six people in the US, including 8.8 million seniors, experience hunger. The effects of food insecurity can contribute to diminished health in older adults and lead to a reduction in their quality of life. Hunger Action Month is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on food insecurity issues facing our seniors and take action to combat hunger in the community.

Not long ago (winter 2013) we witnessed a contentious Congressional debate over reauthorization of the Farm Bill, leading to a significant reduction in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) budget. A federal budget sequester further reduced SNAP spending. Subsequently, some states (Michigan, New Jersey and Wisconsin) have elected to decline monies from the federal government that would have qualified beneficiaries to receive additional food stamps. These actions have been debilitating for many low-income families and seniors who rely on this assistance for basic nutritional support.

Against this background, some elected officials have worked to call attention to the struggle SNAP recipients face. Recently, 18 New Jersey legislators decided to join the state’s Greater MetroWest Food Stamp Challenge to raise awareness and encourage a bi-partisan solution to this issue. The challenge ran from September 8 – 14 and was designed to present each participant with an opportunity to learn what it is like to live on the average daily food stamp benefit. According to a report in New Jersey Jewish News, Senator Lesniak (D) lasted half a day and “busted” his budget to buy coffee. Assemblywoman Munoz (R) learned how challenging it can be to shop—she considered buying a rotisserie chicken which was less expensive than raw chicken but realized that SNAP rules preclude the purchase of “hot food and any food sold for on-premises consumption” and therefore she could not choose the more financially feasible option. The Assemblywoman reportedly said, “We have to get that rule changed.”

Although September is designated as Hunger Action Month by Feeding America, senior food insecurity occurs throughout the year. In January 2014, WOW partner New Jersey Foundation for Aging (NJFA) aired a 30-minute interview with a local food advocate and food bank service provider on its cable television program, Aging Insights. The interview focused on food and nutrition benefits for seniors. NJFA Program Manager Melissa Chalker and her guests addressed issues such as lengthy wait times between being approved for SNAP and actually receiving benefits, along with good nutrition and healthy eating.

WOW’s research suggests that, other than through housing subsidies, the largest decreases in senior economic insecurity can be achieved through participation in SNAP, congregate meals and other nutrition assistance programs. Currently, WOW is working under a grant from The Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation to identify local and non-local causes of senior food insecurity in New Jersey’s Bergen and Passaic Counties. WOW will convene local partners and service providers to identify changes needed in both policy and practice, as well as potential additional advocacy efforts.

As we approach the end of Hunger Action Month, WOW joins friends and allies across the country in reminding everyone to keep the nation focused on reducing hunger, and to use the hashtag #getSNAP to tweet about the Hunger Action Month campaign.

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