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Last Week in Poverty: Confronting Congressional Hunger Games

We shouldn’t permit our legislators to continue making decisions that strip food stamp provisions, especially when legislators are isolated from the very people whose lives they are toying with.


The following article first appeared on the  Nation.com. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters  here.

The congressional hunger games began when Senate Democrats voted to cut  $4.1 billion from food stamps, or SNAP. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said it was a matter of slicing “ waste, fraud and abuse” from the program.

Except that’s not what they were doing.

They were cutting about  $90 a month in benefits for 500,000 households—more than a week’s worth of assistance for a typical family, at a time when an individual’s average benefit is about  $4.45 per day. (It’s worth noting too that just  one cent on every dollar of SNAP spending is lost to fraud.)

House Republicans then tried to up the ante and slash $20 billion from the program—to reduce both the deficit and welfare dependence, they claimed.

Except that’s not what they were doing.

Food stamp spending is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to amount to just  1.7 percent of federal spending over the next ten years—and people with  access to food stamps when they are young have better health outcomes and less dependence on welfare assistance over the long-term. In fact, what the Republicans were attempting to do was toss  2 million people off of SNAP and prevent 210,000 low-income children from receiving free school meals. The bill failed because many Republicans wanted even deeper cuts.

Finally, on Thursday, House Republicans took these hunger games to a new level of violence: they passed a farm bill  stripped of any food stamp provision.

There were appropriate expressions of outrage that this occurred at a moment when nearly  50 million Americans aren’t sure, at times, where their next meal is coming from. But beyond the outrage is a key question: why is it so easy for both parties to play games with the lives of the one in seven Americans—including nearly  one in three children—who are in need of food assistance? And what can be done to change this dynamic?

A friend of mine suggested that a  representative group of food stamp recipients storm the House floor.

“So about  half of them would be children, and about 10 percent elderly, and a lot in wheelchairs, with oxygen tanks, crutches, etc.,” she said. “It would make the fools in the House look even more trivial and foolish than they already look.”

My friend wasn’t being literal, but she makes an important point—we shouldn’t permit our legislators to continue making these decisions in a vacuum, isolated from the very people whose lives they are toying with.

In a recent  interview with Bill Moyers, Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of the  Center for Hunger-Free Communities and co-principal investigator at  Children’s HealthWatch, said, “There’s just not enough people who are poor who have an opportunity to speak out…to really engage in our democracy. I think that they’re actively shut out.”

At the very least, during the umpteen farm bill hearings, Democrats—and there are still many on the right side of this fight—should noisily work to ensure that  we hear from real people about their real experiences. Make those who would malign the poor tell them to their faces that they are lazy for working a low-wage job or two, trying to take care of their kids and needing SNAP’s  $1.50 per person, per meal to help them make ends meet. Senators and Congressmen can also try to explain to people how taking their food away—while also opposing a raise in the minimum wage—is somehow going to reduce their poverty and hunger.

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