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Congress Set to Take Food Aid Away From Millions of Hungry Americans

This makes no sense from a humanitarian point of view or from an economic one.

Photo Credit: Zurijeta/ Shutterstock


If conservatives and "moderates" of both parties get their way in the 2012 Farm Bill now winding its way through Congress, America's recession is about to get a whole lot worse for poor people. In the hallowed name of deficit reduction, the House Agriculture Committee is proposing cuts of up to $16 billion from federal food stamps (a Senate version would cut $4.5 billion) -- even as they protect billions in crop insurance for large-scale farmers and insurance corporations.

What will this radical excising mean, both for America's poor and the economy at large?

The answer is both simple and multilayered. The costs of these cuts will be immediate and long-term, felt palpably in people's stomachs and throughout the "lower tiers" of the economy--the rungs of poverty and hunger inhabited by at least 48 million Americans (not counting millions more who qualify for food stamps but have not accessed them).

Start with this: the proposed cuts to food stamps (known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) would eliminate food aid for 2 to 3 million low-income people, "mostly low-income working families with children and seniors," according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). These cuts will "literally take food away from hungry people," warned Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., after the House Agriculture Committee earlier this month rebuffed his attempt to prevent them.

This is about as heartless and draconian as it gets. In the lingering guts of the deepest recession since the 1930s, with child and family poverty rates hovering at modern records and likely to rise, Congress is serious about diminishing the number of people who can access these life-sustaining benefits. According to a report in the Huffington Post, GOP leaders proposed restricting eligibility for food stamps as one way to "stop fraud."

First, let's strip away the bureaucratese of "benefits" or "entitlements"-- this is about keeping people alive, keeping them decently nourished at a very basic level. It's about reducing hunger and chronic malnutrition among tens of millions of Americans, conditions that lead directly to chronic disease, not to mention great individual suffering. This is not about just moving dollars and budget items around, it's about making sure more people don't go hungry.

"What's disturbing is that so many Americans are poor, not that the share who receive food assistance is about the same as the share who live in poverty," Stacy Dean of CBPP wrote in a July 4 op-ed for USA Today.

How can any member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, justify cutting food stamps for the poor even as poverty rates rise? They are wildly out of touch with both individual and economic reality.

Here's the human reality part. Without food stamps, poor people go hungry. "They" (I'm one of them, though likely more privileged than most of my fellow food stamp recipients) eat less, and they eat worse -- leading to individual and larger public health crises. According to the USDA, "research shows that low-income households participating in SNAP have access to more food energy, protein, and a broad array of essential vitamins and minerals in their home food supply compared to eligible nonparticipants."

When low-income Americans (many of them employed) are denied food stamps, they pack the crowded lines at food pantries, which are already underfunded and overused. Even without cuts to SNAP, the Associated Press reported earlier this week, "The ranks of America's poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net." Increasingly, "they" are us.

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