For Muslims, the fight against hunger and poverty is the essence of zakat, or charitable giving, which is one of five pillars of Islam. The importance of sharing wealth and helping the needy – both within and outside the Muslim community – is underscored throughout the Holy Qur’an. As American-Muslims, we must combine traditional charitable giving with political advocacy in order to meet our religious mandate to tackle poverty. All food banks combined account for only a small fraction (approximately 5%) of total nutrition provisions given to hungry people across the U.S. each year. The most effective way to systematically help millions of hungry families in both urban and rural areas is to make sure that our federal tax dollars go towards bolstering longstanding, successful national nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP.
SNAP stands for the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” formerly known as food stamps. For more than 40 years, SNAP has been the foundation of a nationwide nutritional safety net for low income people. In 2017 alone, SNAP assistance reached about 42 million people and helped lift more than 3.5 million of them out of severe poverty. Seventy percent of SNAP families have children, meaning that the majority of total recipients are kids, elderly, or disabled. SNAP has generally been lauded by both Republicans and Democrats as one of the most cost-effective and meaningful anti-poverty programs on the books. Unlike food banks and other private charities whose financial resources many fluctuate, US government nutrition benefits stay constant and give families more choice in how they meet their needs.
SNAP is funded by the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation that comes up for Congressional renewal every four years. Despite the historically bipartisan support for the bill, over the past decade SNAP’s budget has been consistently threatened by political agendas that prioritize military spending and corporate tax cuts over domestic human needs. The most recent attacks on SNAP have marketed themselves as “workforce development” and play into the misconception that SNAP beneficiaries avoid working. The proposed additional work requirements would burden state bureaucracies and effectively narrow eligibility for millions of parents, elderly recipients, and disabled beneficiaries.
The reality is that most able-bodied adults whose families are SNAP beneficiaries do work, with only ten percent of SNAP households receiving cash welfare. Penalizing those who do not work – most of whom reside in localities where there are few jobs and few opportunities to re-skill – amounts to punishing impoverished Americans for economic conditions beyond their control. Revoking food assistance eligibility from families facing these circumstances will only make it more difficult for people to find and maintain employment. Those who remain eligible would be saddled with complicated paperwork, and individual states will have to bear the increased costs of helping people find employment, as the proposed work requirements provisions do not earmark any additional funding to support new workforce development initiatives.
These are not the values this country is based upon.
It is reported that the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him and his family, said, “He who fills his stomach, while the neighbor next door goes hungry, is not a believer.” Moreover, the Holy Qur’an emphasizes that charity should be directed broadly, not simply limited to fellow Muslims. Our sacred book calls on believers to “do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the Companion by your side…” (Quran 4:36). This broader sense of community is founded on the individual’s responsibility toward those in need, regardless of their ethnic, racial, or religious identity.
While we should continue to donate to charitable causes that address need in our immediate communities, we should also ask ourselves what it means to be in community with all those who reside within U.S. borders. One way we are joined to each other is through the federal tax structure. We can’t food bank our way out of hunger in such a vast country with such varied local economic and geographic factors. But we can engage in political advocacy to support national food assistance programs and other anti-poverty measures. For more information on our broader economic justice platform, please see our issues pages on wages, taxes, and housing.