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The Leading Voices in Food

E125: Women, Food Insecurity and the Feminization of Poverty in the US

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
April 14, 2021

Hunger affects all communities, but you may not know that 40% of single mothers struggle with food security. Women dominate our central workforce, yet they face persistent structural barriers to food security and economic stability. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these challenges. Today, Abby J. Leibman, President and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, discusses the urgent and unique needs single mothers face, and the work she’s leading to advance the anti-hunger movement.

Abby J. Leibman has been President & CEO at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger since 2011. Prior to her current tenure, Ms. Leibman had a consulting practice to assist social justice organizations, businesses, and public institutions meet the challenges of growth and change, including leadership development, managing diversity, and implementing strategies to respond to discrimination. Among her clients, Ms. Leibman worked with some of California’s most innovative organizations, including Jewish World Watch, Food Forward, L.A.’s BEST, UCLA Hillel, Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue, the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (now Bend the Arc).

Interview Summary

So MAZON has recently started developing this area of work related to food insecurity amongst single mothers. Can you tell us more about it?

Yes, and I think one of the things that has always distinguished MAZON has been our ability to look around at the world of the American population struggling with food insecurity, and identify places where there are populations or communities or issues that have gone under-addressed by other large national anti-hunger advocacy organizations. And the number of people who struggle with poverty in America is, of course, in the millions. A significant portion of those are women who are struggling to take care of themselves and their children. Those single mothers constitute one of the most significant, yet under-addressed, communities in our country when it comes to all kinds of social services or social justice efforts. We felt that it was a moment in time when we could lift this up and we should lift it up. Contributing to that, of course, is that during the pandemic. We know that there are a lot of communities that have been more affected than others, and single mothers are among those. In large part because many of them are essential workers. So they’re being pushed in a lot of different directions with little relief that is specifically designed to meet their unique needs.

That statistic that I mentioned in my introduction that 40% of single mothers suffer from food insecurity, boy, what a toll that must take. Can you explain that picture a little more?

Yes. I think that in large part, it really takes two incomes to adequately support a household. There’s very few of us who can say that a single parent or a single salary in a two-parent household is adequate. And when you begin to look at what the lives of women are like when they are single parents, you can see why there are these pressures that fall on them in a way that’s different. We know that in this country, if you are taking care of children, you cannot actually leave them alone when you go out into the paid workforce. So this notion of the relationship between work and care-taking is something that I think a lot of economic structures in this country pay lip service to and do very little to relieve. For better or for worse, the vast majority of those that are the primary caretakers of children are women. So even in a two-parent household, you can see that women are shouldering a lot of the responsibility around that care-taking, but they also have the flexibility and the freedom to be able to work either part-time or afford to have paid childcare for those children. When you’re a single parent, you’re it. You are the person who has got to provide both, that economic security and the parenting responsibilities. And then we look and we say where women are actually ghettoized in a lot of low-paying jobs, that now, we call essential. But I would say up until the pandemic, we dismissed those jobs as being something that were unskilled or unappreciated. We’ve suddenly awakened to the fact that these are very vital roles in our economy and in the way we live our lives in America.

So how do programs like SNAP help single mothers, and also, maybe more important, how do they fall short, particularly in the wake of COVID?

SNAP is an amazing program because it is flexible enough to meet the needs as they grow. This is what an entitlement program is, and it’s one that has worked beautifully. Now it’s underfunded because what we’re talking about is not a lot of money. Even with the new increase that we’ve seen in the American Recovery Act, that number is actually another $28 per person a month, which is not that much money. But when you are trying to feed your family, it’s really vital resources. But SNAP itself is not meant to be the full amount of money that anyone could live on. It’s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program meaning that the program itself is supplemental. You should have some other kind of financial resources here. So it’s already designed to be a program that is not going to be fully funded to create that kind of full budget for your family. Women have these particular challenges about work and feeding families. And the way that the SNAP program has evolved over time is despite being an entitlement, Congress has layered into this requirements that people work outside the home as they struggle to get their footing. So there’s something of an unfortunate irony here. I mean, SNAP was not designed to be a work program, but it’s functioning that way because there are requirements on recipients that they work or be in some other training program in order to receive benefits. Some of that is waived for people who have very small children, who have dependents at home that they have to take care of, but those time limits don’t completely go away. Nor is the requirement that you should be fully engaged in work or the idea that you are looking for work. So a big part of receiving SNAP is showing that you are continuing to look for work and you are trying to better yourself so you can get off of the program. And again, we run into this interesting dilemma of you cannot leave your house to seek work, let alone have work, if you do not have adequate childcare.

So one of the things that MAZON has been very concerned about and tried to lift up is that there is this undeniable relationship between the need for subsidized childcare and the need for SNAP, that these two things are very connected. And in trying to lift up that connection, we hope that we could actually make a real policy connection between the two.

Thank you, Abby. I know you’re trained in law, and as a lawyer with a background in women’s rights, how does this fit together with the work that you’re doing now to end hunger?

So first of all, when you’re an advocate, those skills never leave you. In fact, in my family, I was sort of infamously dubbed, even as a small child, to be a person who was very consumed by what was fair and what was not. And trying to argue vociferously for myself about staying up late and eating whatever I wanted. So I’ve seen myself as a person who had made a commitment a long time ago to working for justice for those who I felt were far more vulnerable in America than others. And there is certainly, as we’ve discussed, this very strong relationship between the work I did around women’s rights, and those who are struggling with hunger in America. When we think about the feminization of poverty, this is not just a slogan. This is a description of what poverty looks like in America. It is dominated by women, and in many cases, women and their children. So it’s not that I strayed that far, in my view. I have moved to a different set of issues that has a tighter focus, if you will.

I’m very impressed with the work that MAZON does. And this is actually a nice transition to the final question. So why don’t we end on an optimistic note? So what are you most excited about or hopeful for in the coming year?

So this is what I see, which is that the pandemic did something that advocates have not been able to do for generations. And that is it put the issue of those struggling with food insecurity in America on the front page. This has never been a focus of this country. And the stunning images that we can see that dramatically demonstrated that the charitable network in this country is not equipped to respond to the tens of millions of people who need to eat three meals a day, every day. They’re not set up for that. It wasn’t what the design was. The purpose of government is to step in and be our community writ large in that respect, that we look at government in much the same way as we’ve now heard our President articulate it, that the government is there to serve, support, and help people.

At MAZON, because Jewish values tell us that very same thing, we’ve seen this moment where we have not only the need, this incredible challenge facing all of us, but we have opportunity in the administration that embraces the idea that, yes, we as a country are responsible for all of those in our country. And we have political and public will that is saying that, “Oh my God, this is truly an issue. “This is something that we can’t pretend “happens in countries far away, it is happening here.” And then sadly, I think that those numbers of people who now find themselves food insecure include people who never saw themselves in any way financially vulnerable, that they were people who gave to charity, they didn’t have to rely on it. And at MAZON, we shy away from thinking about this as issues of charity for just those reasons because we think of it as justice, which is what the Hebrew word for charity, it’s tzedakah and it is about justice. That word translates to being justice. So this is about recognizing that all of us are either in need or could be in need. And then as a community, as a country, our job is to respond without judgment, to give people dignity and respect, but also to treat them with compassion.


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