November 20, 2013 Politics Feeding The Hungry Among Us The following essay appeared in the Lawrence County Advocate on November 20, 2013: Feeding the hungry in our country just got harder. Recently, due to the failure of Congress to pass a budget continuing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (AARA), over 47 million Americans have been hit with cuts in food stamps (also called SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits), including 1 million veterans. Also included are 1 million people in the state of Tennessee. In other words, more than 1/5 of Tennessee’s population is considered food insecure. The loss of ARRA benefits means that a family of four that gets $668 per month will now receive $36 less. Some folks applaud the dying of this measure, arguing that our country should be focused on getting people off food stamps not giving them more to spend. But in addition to helping people whose jobs were lost during the recession, the additional money each month has another purpose. According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), one dollar of food stamp benefits creates a “ripple effect” throughout the economy. In other words, when someone lives paycheck–to-paycheck, one additional dollar benefits the economy $5. The dollar that gets spent at the grocery store also pays the salaries of clerks, truckers who bring in the food and supplies, and farmers who grow the crops. Negotiations in the Senate and House promise more reductions to the SNAP program. The Democratic-controlled Senate is proposing $4 million in cuts. The Republican-controlled House is proposing $39 million more in cuts and a severance of ties to the Farm Bill, through which SNAP is funded, to make reductions easier to accomplish. It is wise to teach people to support themselves. It is paramount to eliminate fraud and waste in the SNAP program. But, eliminating waste in other bloated areas like defense spending and unnecessary subsidies to millionaire farmers first is both just and prudent. According to Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House budget committee, “Right now, the federal government favors the big guy over the little guy. We subsidize large agribusiness and the wealthy at the expense of the family farmer and the taxpayer. It’s an egregious example of cronyism. Both parties are to blame, but I’m hopeful both sides can come together to set this right.” Ryan might agree or disagree about the SNAP program itself, but even he sees the disparity of favoring big business and the wealthiest who take huge chunks of the American pie. There are poor folks who live all around us. Many struggle to put food on the table as they work multiple jobs. Others search for jobs that pay decent wages but cannot find them in this economy. These are the working poor. Moreover, as long as there are mental illness, war, drought, flood, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, child abuse, unemployment, catastrophic diseases, and greed, there will be poor people who need governmental assistance. Saving money by making them a little hungrier doesn’t seem to be the wisest choice or the kindest. Making it easier to take even more from them (by disconnecting SNAP from the Farm Bill) would take away any leverage for keeping the food stamp program funded. While some argue that SNAP is an albatross around the neck of the Farm Bill, this is one albatross that must remain connected. Instead of judging the poor and blaming them for their plight, it is more productive to regard them as human beings who deserve our respect and need our help. These folks are all around us—in our schools and neighborhoods, beside us on the assembly line, assisting us at the grocery store, serving us in restaurants, sitting beside us in church. How many more are one illness/customer complaint/plant closing/divorce away from food stamps? Ask yourself this: how many people really would choose to “live off the government” for a whopping $1.60 per meal? This is the amount per person that is allotted in food stamps. And abusing the system has gotten harder. The USDA reports that fraud accounted for less than 3% of all SNAP recipients in 2011, trafficking abuse was 1% in 2012, and benefits are now issued on electronic debit cards that can only be used for food. And finally, those who follow the Christian faith understand that Jesus did not mince words with regard to the poor and the hungry. Did He admonish people to use true charity by helping people teach themselves to become less poor? Did He specify the parsing out of responsibility to churches? I believe his words were pretty plain. Churches and non-profits should be applauded for their great work with charity and their giving to those in need. But, in this day and time, for hunger to be obliterated, it will take something much larger. It will take government to work for its people.