Hungry children just too much bother for the state of Montana

April 28, 2022 4:28 am

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

“For I was naked and you clothed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. And  I was hungry, and you decided against feeding me because of the administrative burdens.”

Jesus’ words don’t quite have the same ring to them when translated for today’s political environment, I guess.

Of course, I adapted his famous words from the 25th chapter of Matthew to read better so as not to condemn our state leaders who have decided that feeding hungry children was just too much paperwork and have, instead, decided to forego more than $36 million in federal funding.

Many of these same leaders, of course, are the pious type who wear their religion on their sleeve, bumpers and remind voters of their holy bonafides in this, the beginning of election season.

Montana has the option of taking more than $36 million of federal aid to help feed hungry families still dealing with the realities of COVID-19, inflation and regrouping their life. Places like the Montana Food Bank Network report a recent uptick in need as many temporary safety net programs developed during COVID-19 begin to recede. Missoula’s food bank experienced its most demanding month in 40 years.

Some will argue that it’s not the government’s job to put food on the table. But that’s really easy to say if there’s food on your table.

I’d rather see the government feed hungry children and families if it does anything. It’s not about a government that nannies or coddles residents, it’s about something that transcends politics. If being able to feed hungry children isn’t a measure of government competence, then what do things like fighting about abortion mean anyway? I mean: We fight like the dickens to get children to be born, then let ’em go hungry when they’re here. Seems…I don’t know, twisted.

Several of my grandparents grew up in poverty during the Great Depression and remembered the meager meals and the feeling of going to bed on an empty stomach. It wasn’t for being lazy or because they were shiftless. Instead, it’s a memory that reverberates within a family for three generations spanning more than 100 years. And surely, we weren’t the only family who has the same handed-down tales of worrying about food.

And when the best excuse a state government can muster is that it’s not applying for millions in food aid because of the administrative burden, it’s infuriating.

Meanwhile politicians are sparing no administrative burden as they drum up theories of lost elections; or they sprinkle lawsuits throughout the country challenging every objectionable policy in federal court; or they carefully script 56-county tours that pretend to listen to the needs of residents.

As they tour and wage lawsuits in faraway places like Louisiana, kids in Montana aren’t getting enough to eat and families during summer may face “food insecurity,” the polite nomenclature that tries to cover up the ugliness of the word “hungry” in a place like Montana, which can grow and produce so much food.

I hear a lot of talk in the “Making America Great Again” circles about getting families back together around the kitchen table, but what happens when those tables are empty? I also hear so much about putting God back into schools via prayer, and not being ashamed to proclaim religion. Yet these same politicians who doff their Stetsons every time a prayer is uttered seem to forget that Jesus talked about separating the sheep from the goats in that same chapter of Matthew. Let’s be honest: If your savior died on a cross to save your life, it seems like the least some of his most vocal supporters should be able to do is fill out some paperwork.

Unfortunately, who gets help has become part of a cultural war, as lawmakers rally around the idea of means testing for social services and drug testing the poor, which stigmatizes those already facing plenty of life’s challenges. It is bad enough that those having the temerity to ask for help now have to be subject to the humiliation of being suspected loafers or drug addicts.

Even poverty and hunger have become wrapped up in the acrimony that seems to define this current generation, instead of just helping those who clearly need assistance.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu had the greatest and simplest commentary on what Jesus meant when he told his followers to care for the poor, sick, naked and those in jail.

“When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread,” Tutu famously said.

And I cannot say for certain who, exactly, will go without food as we let the millions pass to the federal government or some other state. But I know this, those who are going without food, clothing or access to clean water aren’t the same people hanging out in the capitol.

These are the people who are least able to have access to food, political power and the least likely to say much because of the stigma that comes from poverty.

Thankfully, that clever Jesus was already one step ahead of some columnist like me. He even addressed those who, probably not unlike our current leaders, would assume that Jesus’ words were really spoken to someone else, surely not them.

“Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.