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Op-Ed: Stories of Economic Struggle Are Stories About New Jersey

Poverty is not an abstraction. It’s the story of real people like Megan -- and other mothers, children, and individuals

serena rice
Serena Rice

As an anti-poverty advocate, I have learned a lot about the power of stories. When I use the word “poverty” in the abstract, people’s responses are usually abstract as well. But when I tell a story, people immediately understand why I do this work. One story that has recently reminded me why I do this work, is Megan’s.

When Megan was pregnant with her second son, her ex-boyfriend put a gun to her head. Looking at her firstborn in his crib she knew that she had to leave. She had to save her life. After years of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, beginning in childhood, Megan knew she had to change her future.

“I was so used to being abused that it was normal for me,” Megan shared at a recent Anti-Poverty Network event. “It was just how life is. It led me to my ex. We were in a relationship for about 2.5 years that was physically, sexually, and verbally abusive. It was torture really.”

Megan and her children escaped, and began to rebuild their lives. She drew on tremendous personal strength to take this step, but her personal history left her without a strong personal-safety net. Thankfully, they found shelter in a transitional-housing program, where they still live, and were able to rely on SNAP benefits and local food pantries to feed themselves.

“What’s helped me the most with my children is the SNAP program,” said Megan. “Without that program there would be no way I could feed my kids. At times it doesn’t seem like enough but it’s better than nothing.”

Megan’s story is incredibly personal, but her story of getting help to rebuild her life is one with great public significance. Megan is one of more than 1 million people in New Jersey who face food insecurity. Without SNAP, she and her two young sons would face real hunger.

Many others in New Jersey do. New Jersey’s SNAP participation rate is 77 person -- below the national average of 83 percent. This means that 23 percent of people who are eligible for SNAP benefits in New Jersey are not receiving them, despite clear evidence of hunger-related need across the state. In the abstract, 23 percent is just a number. But in the context of Megan’s story, it means mothers, and children, and individual, personal stories that should matter to all of us.

Megan is the first person to be featured in a newly launched campaign by the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey called Stories of New Jersey. According to the recently released report by Legal Services of New Jersey, almost one-third of New Jersey residents live in poverty. This campaign will show the stories behind these grim statistics -- from workers trying to survive on poverty wages, to families struggling to afford housing, to those who have survived homelessness. The stories will also offer hope by showing what can be done to rebuild the safety net. The individual stories provide a window into both the structural obstacles to meeting basic needs, as well as the structural solutions: solutions like investment in feeding programs, a true living wage, and increasing the availability of affordable housing.

“I chose to share my story so that government officials know that we exist and desperately need their continued support,” said Megan. “We aren't lazy people looking to take the easy road in life. We are people starting our lives over and are looking for direction and support.”

Our state has an important role to play in offering that direction and support. And the first step in that response is to really listen to their stories.

Serena Rice is the executive director of the New Jersey Anti-Poverty Network.

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