Conservative Quest to Gut Food Stamps Ignores Widespread Hunger

Mindlessly cutting these benefits without regard for the human cost is stupid, cruel, and reprehensible.

Pastor Carlos Cabrera, of the Tabernacle of Faith church in Maryland, looks through refrigerated food at the Capital Area Food Bank November 14, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Bedford Falls Foundation Food Distribution Center is the Capital Area Food Bank's hub for getting food to its partners and other charities to feed those who cannot afford to feed themselves. 
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
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Norm Ornstein
Nov. 20, 2013, 5:16 p.m.

This week­end, my friend Rainey Foster will be honored at the an­nu­al din­ner of So Oth­ers May Eat, one of a num­ber of ter­rif­ic or­gan­iz­a­tions in Wash­ing­ton that feed the hungry. It is an aus­pi­cious time for SOME to hold its din­ner, be­cause the num­ber of people us­ing its ser­vices is grow­ing in this slug­gish eco­nomy, and it will grow even more as the food-stamp pro­gram, known as SNAP, is cut fur­ther.

How much fur­ther, we do not know, as the farm-bill con­fer­ence inches to­ward a pos­sible res­ol­u­tion after a three-year-plus dead­lock that may set the gold stand­ard for dys­func­tion in gov­ernance. What we do know is that the farm-bill dead­lock, which dragged on through the worst drought since the Great De­pres­sion, has been largely due to the in­sist­ence of House Re­pub­lic­ans on cut­ting the food-stamp budget by $40 bil­lion over 10 years on top of the $5 bil­lion that has already been trimmed.

I was struck by a column by Katy Wald­man in Slate per­son­al­iz­ing the im­pact of the ex­ist­ing cuts, via a con­ver­sa­tion with Debra, a single moth­er in Wash­ing­ton. Debra’s food-stamp al­lot­ment has been re­duced from $203 a month to $130. Here is what she said about the situ­ation be­fore the cut.

“It’s me and my daugh­ter at home. She’s 21. It was bad enough be­fore the cuts: We were eat­ing lunch meat all week, and we only had enough for a can of ve­get­ables a day. Di­vide $203 by 30 days, and then by three meals, and then halve it for each per­son. It’s not a lot. And now it’s go­ing to be much worse. I don’t know if we can still do the canned ve­get­ables every day. One thing we won’t do any­more is have three-course meals on week­ends. We used to buy a din­ner on Sat­urday and Sunday that would have three courses: a ve­get­able, a starch, and a meat. But meat is go­ing to be a huge prob­lem. It’s ex­pens­ive for any­one. I don’t know what we’ll eat for the week­ends any­more. Hope­fully not lunch meats again.”

I’ll do the math for you. At $203 a month, that is $1.13 per meal for each per­son every day; at $130 a month, it is 72 cents per meal. Not much room there for a venti latte at Star­bucks, huh? Debra does rely on food banks like SOME (she uses Martha’s Table and Bread for the City, two oth­er won­der­ful D.C. or­gan­iz­a­tions). But these groups are strug­gling as well. They do not get as much sur­plus food as they used to. Bio­fuels have helped drive up food prices, re­du­cing those sur­pluses.

Forty-sev­en mil­lion people are now on food stamps. I am sure that there are cheat­ers and those who game the sys­tem; many con­ser­vat­ives point to the Cali­for­nia surfer eat­ing lob­ster on food stamps, the clas­sic “wel­fare queen” case. But the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity are liv­ing on in­comes be­low the poverty line. Five per­cent of all Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies run out of money for food be­fore the month is out, in­clud­ing a large num­ber of work­ing people.

The ar­gu­ment made on the House floor by Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., when he killed the last at­tempt at bi­par­tis­an agree­ment on a farm bill was that the pro­gram en­cour­ages a cul­ture of de­pend­ency and dis­cour­ages people from work­ing. It is true that for Debra and oth­ers like her, get­ting a min­im­um-wage job would prob­ably leave them with less than they get now. But it is also true that most food-stamp re­cip­i­ents, in­clud­ing most of those ad­ded in the past five years as a res­ult of the Great Re­ces­sion, want to work and simply can’t find jobs. Talk to any­body at a food bank, and they will tell you of see­ing people come by for food who used to con­trib­ute to them. They don’t want to take — they want to give — but find them­selves, through no fault of their own, in dire straits. But what made Can­tor’s ar­gu­ment so hol­low was that he wanted to tie food-stamp eli­gib­il­ity to job train­ing — without provid­ing a dime for job-train­ing pro­grams, which have also been cut back.

I am happy that Rep. Paul Ry­an, R-Wis., is quietly fo­cus­ing on poverty and seek­ing con­ser­vat­ive solu­tions; sim­il­arly, oth­er con­ser­vat­ives such as the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute’s Ar­thur Brooks be­lieve in the es­sen­tial role of a gov­ern­ment safety net but want to find ways to re­duce the cul­ture of en­ti­tle­ment. I would love for all sides to find com­mon ground here: Provide the kind of job train­ing that will en­able people to find work and move out of poverty while help­ing them with the ba­sics of food, shel­ter, health care, and trans­port­a­tion. But to cut, slash, and burn that aid mind­lessly without re­gard for the hu­man cost is stu­pid, cruel, and rep­re­hens­ible.

One last thing: As the hol­i­day sea­son ap­proaches, don’t for­get SOME, Martha’s Table, Bread for the City, the Cap­it­al Area Food Bank, the Cent­ral Uni­on Mis­sion, Feed­ing Amer­ica, Share Our Strength, and oth­er won­der­ful groups around the coun­try that step in where gov­ern­ment is step­ping out.

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