Jessica Bartholow, currently a legislative advocate for California’s Western Center on Law and Poverty, has worked for nearly fifteen years to overcome the harm that low-income Californians face due to hunger, food insecurity, and a shredded safety net. In Sacramento, in a legislative arena where monied voices receive the bulk of the attention, she makes sure that grassroots voices, especially those of low-income clients, are heard as well. Before joining the Western Center Jessica worked with food banks and built a statewide network of food stamp advocates and application assisters as well as a statewide food bank nutrition education program. In June 2012, she participated as a panelist in a webinar sponsored by Clearinghouse Review, “Does the Local Food Movement Help or Hurt Low-Income Americans?” For a compelling account of Jessica's personal experience with hunger see The Nation's Talk About Poverty.
What’s an advocacy campaign that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
At the end of a campaign I always wonder whether we could have done more or achieved victories more quickly. But it’s hard not to feel good about the package of antihunger and antipoverty bills that California’s newly elected governor, Jerry Brown, signed last year. The bills included removal of the costly finger-imaging requirement for SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] recipients, new simplified reporting for TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] and SNAP, and relief from SNAP sanctions for unemployed Californians. These victories were sweetest because they belonged not to one person or agency but to our diverse advocacy community and represented years of dogged activism of uncompromised positions.
What’s an advocacy campaign that comes to mind as causing you particular anxiety? Why?
I’m anxious about so many of the policy fights because the human costs of each failure are so real, but the campaign to end the lifetime ban on food assistance and TANF for people with former drug felony convictions has caused me the most anxiety. Despite overwhelming evidence that removing the ban would reduce recidivism, and regardless of the high cost of incarceration and the unmistakable disproportionate impact of this policy in communities of color, leaders have allowed media sound bites to keep them from removing the ban. People shouldn’t be sentenced to a lifetime of hunger for any crime. Food is a human right, and to impose hunger on any family because they are poor and one of them committed a crime for which they already served their time is inhumane and unjust beyond words. I am anxious that this year will not be any different.
You’ve worked on hunger and food insecurity for a long time. What do you find is the primary misconception about this problem, especially among legislators?
It always seems to surprise legislators when they learn that the average length of time a SNAP recipient stays on aid is less than two years, or that the benefit amount is only $4.46 per day per person, or that many people must comply with work requirements in order to be eligible. They also seem surprised that TANF benefits have a maximum lifetime limit of sixty months or that parents are required to work to receive it. I think all legislators would benefit from more conversations with people who live below the poverty line.
As a nonlawyer legislative advocate working in a public interest law organization, do you bring a different perspective? Do you ever run into dueling world views?
California’s public interest law community has always relied on a strong relationship with nonlawyer advocates to achieve a broader impact. The perspective I bring to this work has been immensely influenced by the generous mentorship of so many public interest lawyers. So I would say rather than dueling world views, I have found a place at Western Center and within the broader public interest law community that allows me to use my talents in a way that complements those of my lawyer colleagues.
My personal experience with poverty is more unique than my nonlawyer status. Western Center’s public benefits team has two members who have experienced the indignities of poverty. I don’t think this experience necessarily results in a different world view or is in any way a prerequisite for a successful antipoverty advocate, but the perspective is important, and one that should be more common in the antipoverty policy advocacy community. We should each do what we can to encourage and support young advocates who hail from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue justice making as their vocation.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?