47 Million Americans Are Going Over the “Hunger Cliff”

Terrance Heath

Millions of Americans will plunge over the “Hunger Cliff” tomorrow, when $5 billion in cut to food stamps go into effect  tomorrow. While Congress negotiates even more cuts, millions of Americans will face negotiating where their next meal will come from.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the number of Americans who relied on food stamps skyrocketed from 26 million in 2007 to nearly 47 million in 2012. The 2009 stimulus raised the cap on food stamp benefits, and poured $45.2 billion into the program. But now the stimulus provisions are expiring, and the food stamp program is scheduled for $5 billion in cuts over the next year.

The cuts weren’t supposed to be catastrophic, but to return spending on food stamps to normal levels once the crisis passed. The problem is that the crisis didn’t pass. The economic recovery skipped most Americans, for whom the Great Recession has continued unabated.

According to Feeding America, in 2012:

  • 49 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children;
  • 14.5 percent of American households (17.6 million) were food insecure;
  • 5.7 percent of American households (7.0 million) reported very low food insecurity
  • households with children had higher rates of food insecurity than those without children, 20.9 percent compared to 11.9 percent; especially households with children headed by single women (35.4 percent) or single men (23.6 percent), Black non-Hispanic households (24.6 percent) and Hispanic households (23.3 percent);
  •  5.1 percent of all U.S. households (6.2 million households) accessed emergency food from a food pantry or soup kitchen one or more times;
  • 59.4 percent of food-insecure households participated in at least one of the three major Federal food assistance programs – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamp Program), The National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), “food insecurity” occurs when “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”

Statistics and definitions, however, don’t tell you who the Americans who struggle with hunger on a daily basis are. Conservatives like to say “Those who do not work shall not eat, misquoting and misusing the Bible to justify cutting food stamps, and implying that Americans who rely on food stamps are so lazy they’d rather rely on the government to feed them.

The truth is that sometimes those who work still can’t eat. Many food stamp recipients have jobs. They are the working poor, whose wages are not enough to lift them out of poverty. They are low-wage workers for highly profitable companies that refuse to pay living wages. They rely on food stamps to stave off hunger. Some employers, like McDonald’s tell workers to apply for food stamps if their wages aren’t enough to put food on the table.

These are the people who will be going over the “Hunger Cliff” while members of Congress negotiate even more cuts to food stamps.

The program is back on the chopping block this week as Congress begins negotiations over the Farm Bill. Last month, House Republicans passed a bill that could cut nearly $40 billion from the food stamp program over the next decade. (Not to mention eliminating free school meals for over 200,000 children.) The Senate bill cuts just a tenth of that amount. It’s likely that final farm include cuts to food stamp benefits that fall somewhere between the House and Senate bills.

Instead of literally taking food off the tables of American families, here’s what Congress should put on the table during farm bill negotiations:

  • the sugar subsidies that prop up 85 percent of the U.S. sugar market, at an $80 million loss to taxpayers;
  • the 75 percent of subsidies that go to biggest 10 percent of farming businesses;
  • the $4 to $5 billion in direct payments to owners of traditional farmland, even if those “farmers” (including one Rockefeller heir who pocketed $400,000) aren’t growing anything;
  • the farm subsidies that go to members of Congress (ten times as much to Republicans as to Democrats), including $7.2 million in farm subsidies  to fourteen congressional Republicans with a combined net worth of $124.5 million.

Congress shouldn’t be taking food off the tables of millions of American families while lining the pockets of major corporations, big farming businesses and wealthy so-called “farmers — not to mention lining their own pockets — with tax dollars that could and should be used to feed the hungry.

When millions of Americans are teetering on the edge of the “Hunger Cliff” Congress shouldn’t be negotiating how hard to push.

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