Food

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.

Take a look at some of the AP's findings: 

  • "Part-time or underemployed workers, who saw a record 15 percent poverty in 2010, will rise to a new high." 
  • "The official poverty rate will rise from 15.1 percent in 2010, climbing as high as 15.7 percent." 
  • "Child poverty will increase from its 22 percent level in 2010."

Now for the economic reality. Cutting food stamps doesn't save money, it costs money -- by pushing poor people into other emergency food programs, and down the road, adding significantly to public healthcare costs for diet-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, which already cost in excess of $100 billion annually. On top of that, cutting food stamps means reducing economic stimulus and job creation -- precisely what's needed to reduce poverty and hunger. A 2011 study by the USDA, for instance, found that the immediate stimulative effects of food stamp dollars "ripple throughout the economies of the community, state, and nation."

More precisely the USDA found:

  • "Every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates a total of $9.20 in community spending." 
  • "Every additional dollar's worth of SNAP benefits generates 17 to 47 cents of new spending on food." 
  • "On average, $1 billion of retail food demand by SNAP recipients generates 3,300 farm jobs."

Now add to this picture a couple of powerful conclusions from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, citing data from Moody's Analytics, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and the National Academy of Science (NAS). Each dollar of additional food stamp benefits produces $1.72 in additional economic activity, the CBO found -- making SNAP "one of the two most cost-effective of all spending and tax options it examined for boosting growth and jobs in a weak economy." The CBO predicts food stamp usage will decline by 2014.

Perhaps more to the point, the NAS concluded that food stamps kept roughly 4 million people out of poverty in 2010, while diminishing the intensity of poverty for millions more. Food stamps represent one of the wisest, most effective uses of our tax dollars -- directly feeding and nourishing individuals and their surrounding economies. It's both unconscionable and reckless, on economic and humanitarian levels, to pull this thin little rug out from under people who are barely getting by.

Food stamps can certainly use some reforms -- starting with greater oversight and regulation of the banks and food corporations that reap profits from SNAP and other welfare programs. But in an election year utterly devoid of discussion about America's growing open sore of poverty and hunger, this is an important moment to send a strong message to Congress: cutting this basic lifeline will cause immediate and long-term harm, to the economic and physical well-being of poor people, and of the country. 

For more on how to get involved in the food stamp fight, check out Feeding America. For updates and action bulletins about the farm bill, visit the the Environmental Working Group.

Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Harper's, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, The American Prospect, and others. He is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. His website is www.christopherdcook.com.