It is all but impossible for politicians to be successful if they cannot relate to their constituents and few do so better than Cory Booker. In his six years as mayor of Newark, N.J., Booker has earned a reputation for rare empathy as well as the nickname “Supermayor”: He’s personally rescued a neighbor from her burning home, responded to service requests over Twitter during a winter blizzard and hosted a slumber party for constituents left without power by Hurricane Sandy. Today, Booker begins his latest high-profile outreach effort: Living on food stamps for a week.
Booker’s stunt, which was prompted by a Twitter dispute, is in keeping with his style, although he is by no means the first elected official to undertake the so-called “food stamp challenge,” in which people agree to eat only what they can afford on the average grocery budget of a food stamp recipient (as CNN Money estimates, about $4.44 a day). Earlier this year, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Pennsylvania congressman Bob Brady both lived on food stamps for a week to demonstrate the danger in cutting program funding as part of the Greater Philadelphia Food Stamp Challenge. Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman ate a week’s worth of meals on food stamps in January to highlight the struggle of recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), while Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton also lived on food stamps for a week to support September’s Hunger Awareness Week. All told, at least four governors, nine city mayors and some 20 members of Congress have taken the challenge, according to the Food Research & Action Center, a non-profit organization that promotes them. “It’s not easy to put yourself in the position of low income people in this country in a meaningful way, so the challenge is one of the few, useful visible ways to convey how hard it is under the existing inadequate food stamp allotment,” says Jim Weill, the center’s president.
Other politicians and interest groups have tried similar approaches to bring attention to their own causes, with varying results. In October, Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s visit to an Ohio soup kitchen backfired when it emerged that some of the dishes he was photographed washing had already been cleaned. In 2007, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) convinced many of the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination to serve as health care workers as part of their Walk a Day in My Shoes program. In an effort to connect with average citizens — and court the support of the powerful union — John Edwards worked the morning shift at a nursing home outside of New York City, where his duties included shaving and applying leg moisturizer to an 83-year-old man; Hillary Clinton shadowed a nurse at a Henderson, Nevada hospital (and launched an ad campaign for her health reform plan the following day) and Barack Obama spent the day with home health care worker Pauline Beck, helping clean and cook breakfast for one of her patients. As president, Obama cited his time with Beck when he called for the country’s 1.8 million home-care workers to receive minimum wage and overtime pay protections as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
A forerunner of Booker’s style of immersion politics was former Chicago mayor Jane Byrne. After meeting a teenager who had been raped in the city’s notoriously dangerous Cabrini Green public housing project, Byrne and her husband moved into the complex in March of 1981. The Byrnes took up residence in a fourth floor apartment and while violence temporarily decreased, attempts to improve the quality of life foundered (an Easter egg hunt was a complete failure) and the mayor packed up after three weeks. Booker borrowed a page from Byrne’s playbook when he lived in the run-down Brick Towers public housing complex in Newark between 1998 and 2006.
What compels Booker and other elected officials to go to these lengths? “Politicians who are more inclined to show solidarity in this way might have a little bit more to prove because they didn’t come from a disadvantaged background,” says Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America. “Politicians who came from a hardscrabble background don’t feel the need to do that because they grew up that way.” And, says Gillespie, as Booker’s name is bandied about as a possible gubernatorial candidate, the extra publicity certainly doesn’t hurt, either.