Is America Teetering on the Edge of the Hunger Cliff?
One in six Americans will go hungry this year because they don’t always have enough cash on hand to buy the food that they need.
It’s a national disgrace. Yet Republicans in Congress are proposing to make it worse. All but 15 GOP members in the House voted last month to slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps) by $40 billion over the next 10 years. Their bill would knock nearly four million people off food stamps in the first year alone, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
This controversy has focused the spotlight of national attention on questions that usually get little coverage in the press. Who exactly are America’s hungry? Why have their numbers been increasing in recent years?
Forty-six million people are currently enrolled in SNAP, more than double the number who were receiving benefits in 2001. The program’s Republican critics claim the system is rife with fraud, and that many of these enrolled in it are lazy and mooching off the system. Never mind that a disproportionate number of these “moochers” live in traditionally Republican districts in rural areas and in the South.
Representative Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), who voted to shrink the SNAP program, represents a county where 17.8 percent of residents don’t have enough food, according to the group, Feeding America. As I reported in May, together with his father and brother, who farm over 2,500 acres for cotton, Fincher has received roughly $8.9 million in federal farm subsidies over the last 10 years. Yet while he fights to allow rich farmers to remain on the public dole, the congressman would deprive hungry families of dollars a day to keep food on their tables.
Fincher and other Republicans argue that now that the economy is recovering, it's time to scale back food programs for the poor. He quotes from the Book of Thessalonians: "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat."
Perhaps Rep. Fincher didn’t notice that the so-called “recovery” has been anemic and not yet helped many at the bottom of the totem pole who were hit the hardest.
“Wall Street is in hyper-overdrive, but America in terms of job creation, in terms of poverty is not in recovery,” Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger told me. Berg says that poverty rates have not gone down, and that hunger in our country may be at its highest levels since the Great Depression.
“The very people who implemented the conservative policies that sunk our economic ship,” Berg says, “are now complaining about giving food life-preservers to the drowning.”
But the problem is solvable. We know what we need to do to solve our hunger crisis, he says, because we’ve already done it.
“We almost ended hunger entirely in our nation,” according to Berg. “By the late '70s, we had created the modern nutrition safety net, food stamps, WICC, school breakfast and lunch programs... It was in the Reagan era that we started going backwards, and we’ve been going backwards ever since due to rollbacks in several federal safety net programs and fundamental changes in the economy, and particularly the growth of the working poor.”
Berg says the notion that recipients of food aid are lazy and unwilling to work is simply untrue. About half of those receiving food assistance are employed, he says, adding that even some people who are working two or more part-time jobs are not always able to feed themselves and their families.
For the working poor, hunger can be episodic. Say you’re a veteran recently returned from Afghanistan who earns a bit over $1000 in a good month from assorted construction jobs, and your car engine has just conked out. Do you repair it so you can get to work next week, or do you spend the money on restocking the larder? Or you’re a retiree in Peoria trying to stretch your monthly pension and Social Security checks to cover a new flurry of drug copays. Maybe you’ll skimp on the milk and fresh produce for a spell and fill up on ramen noodles and discount pancake mix... When money is tight, you still need to pay the rent, the medical bills, car insurance and the like. The one place where there’s a bit of wiggle room left is the food budget.