Snapping at SNAP: Hunger In The Name of Austerity

Starting today, Massachusetts Rep. James McGovern is joining the state’s Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz and other Massachusetts officials in the “SNAP challenge.” For the next seven days, they are going to be living off a food budget of $31.50, the average weekly benefit received by an individual in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as “food stamps.”

They join others, including members of Congress, their staffers and partners, in the Congressional SNAP Food Stamp Challenge to raise awareness of how vital the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is in the lives of low-income Americans.

Started by the Food Research and Action Center, this challenge not only illustrates the lack of access low-income Americans have to healthy food items, but also the limited access they have to even basic food staples.

The time of this challenge could not be more appropriate, in light of the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act – the “farm bill” – that passed the Senate, 66 to 27, on June 10. In addition to programs that would protect farmers from fluctuating prices on such commodities as corn and wheat, the bill also includes controversial cuts to SNAP by $3.9 billion over the next 10 years. These cuts are part of the misguided congressional agenda that focuses solely on deficit reduction.

The rationale for these cuts from proponents is that the Senate is cracking down on abuse and loopholes, and increasing the integrity of this program. However, they are really just propagating this myth that people are getting rich off of SNAP benefits. In reality, the exact opposite is occurring. The benefits are often too little for families.

A report conducted by Feeding America, an immense nationwide network of food banks and similar organizations, says that about 90 percent of benefits are consumed by the recipient within the first three weeks of the month. On the fourth week, if you’re a family receiving SNAP benefits, you are forced to make even tougher choices between feeding yourself and your family, and using your already stretched resources to pay for housing, health care costs, utilities, and transportation.

Proponents of this bill say the spending cuts will not lead to a decrease in benefits or removal of low-income families from the program. This is also false. These cuts will greatly limit state coordination between SNAP and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program, whose relationship has been aptly nicknamed “heat and eat.” Ultimately, this interprogram relationship was created to eliminate the devastating choice that many low-income Americans have to make between paying for energy or paying for food.

And this program is not the only benefit that is in danger. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2012 that 500,000 households a year would see $90 in badly needed SNAP benefits disappear each month.

These cuts could not come at a worse time. Our protracted economic recovery has resulted in relatively unchanged levels of unemployment and underemployment. These two factors have unfortunately culminated in a rise in SNAP participation. In March, 168,888 people enrolled in the program, increasing the program to well over 47.7 million. This is prescient, because of the strong relationship between poverty and hunger.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation’s recent spotlight on food crises cites the main reason for food insecurity is poverty. This fact is corroborated by a statement issued by Kevin Concannon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, at a roundtable to discuss SNAP’s vital role during the 2008 Recession and its impact on poverty in America, convened by the Urban Institute and Feeding America, in which Concannon stated, “it’s the first line of defense against hunger.”

When analyzing various reports on SNAP’s impact on the hunger crisis in America, his statement becomes more than just a bumper sticker slogan. “Studies have a shown a 20-50 percent reduction” in poverty as a result of SNAP, said Caroline Ratcliffe of the Urban Institute during that same roundtable.

Further, SNAP monthly benefits reached only 75 percent of all those that are eligible in 2010, found in a study conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

However, SNAP does more than just alleviate hunger. The roundtable concluded that SNAP is a quintessential tool in the struggle against poverty, providing work support, promoting nutrition and wellness, and fills the void left by other social safety nets. SNAP is not the only first defense against hunger, it was the one of the best defenses against the unrelenting effects of the Great Recession.

What is more glaring are the cuts proposed by Republicans in the House – $20 billion over 10 years, on top of a $25 reduction in SNAP monthly benefits that a typical family of four will feel when a supplemental benefit allocation that was included in the Recovery Act will expire – all in the name of austerity. According to a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities paper, the House Republican proposal “would cut nearly 2 million low-income people off SNAP” and “several hundred thousand low-income children would lose access to free school meals.”

How anyone can be in favor of a bill with cuts to such an essential program, especially during these trying financial times, just simply does not make sense.

Comments