The Congressional Hunger Games: Time for Both Sides to Step Up

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Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity
Joel Berg
May 15, 2012
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Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity will be running a series of commentaries in the summer of 2012 on the fight to end childhood hunger in America.
 This commentary is the first installment in the series, which is entitled “Ending Childhood Hunger in America.”

The very politicians that sunk our economic ship are now trying to take away life preservers from the children who are drowning.

We are still suffering the consequences of Bush-era policies that eliminated millions of jobs, depressed wages for the jobs that still existed, and slashed the safety net for families with children. It is no wonder that in 2010, 49 million Americans, including more than 16 million children, lived in households that couldn’t afford enough food, according to the USDA. Now, one in five children struggle against hunger.  

These families with children are forced to skip meals, ration food, purchase cheaper but less healthy food, and/or choose between food, rent, medicine, and the gas needed to get to work. This makes them less likely to escape poverty, maintain good health, excel in school, or increase their work productivity.

The main reason the nation doesn’t suffer from even more devastating hunger – and hasn’t slipped into mass starvation – is the success of federal nutrition assistance programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In his last campaign, President Barack Obama set the goal of ending child hunger in America by 2015. If we are going to be serious about this, we must strengthen, not gut, this vital pillar of the social safety net.

SNAP has worked exactly as it was designed to do, expanding to meet the growing demand during hard economic times, just as it contracted in response to the economic prosperity of the late 1990’s. Because wages were low and unemployment was increasing during the George W. Bush presidency, 14.7 million people were added to the SNAP rolls.

In response to the continuing recession, another 14.3 million people have received the benefit under President Barack Obama. One in seven Americans, including many formerly middle-class working people, now receive benefits, including 18.6 million children. The USDA has projected declining participation in SNAP again in 2013, as the economy continues to recover.

Not only has the USDA found that SNAP significantly reduces hunger, it has also proven that SNAP has cut the national poverty rate by a whopping nine percent.  

In addition, illegally-trafficked benefits constitute only about one percent of all SNAP dollars, which means there is less fraud in SNAP than in most businesses, nonprofit groups, or defense contracts.  In contrast, two percent of the Members of the U.S. House of Representatives have been convicted of law-breaking over the last ten years, giving the House twice the fraud rate of SNAP.

SNAP is one of the most effective, best-run, and important programs in U.S. history for children. Given that the nation’s food pantries, soup kitchens, and food banks are running out of food as they face record demand, the logical response would be for Congress to increase SNAP funding and protect the young people in this country.

But that would require Congress to act logically.

Instead, at the worst possible time to do so, both the House and the Senate are seeking to slash SNAP, yet again, having done so last year to pay for a child nutrition bill.  The House Republican budget proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan would cut an additional $134 billion from SNAP. According to the Center for American Progress, this would cost our economy 184,000 jobs, kick eight to ten million people off food assistance, and take up to 8.2 billion meals away from struggling families. On top of those cuts, the House Republicans just voted for another $36 billion in SNAP cuts, which would not only take SNAP away from two million more Americans, but would also cause 280,000 low-income children to lose automatic eligibility for free school meals.

Unfortunately, the Democrats who lead the Senate Agriculture Committee, retreating from their historic role as defenders of the nutrition safety net, are proposing their own $4.5 billion worth of SNAP cuts. They seem to agree with the House Republicans that the best way to convince the public they are serious about deficit reduction is to take even more funding away from the nation’s most vulnerable. So far, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has been the only member of the Committee with the courage to speak out strongly against the Senate’s SNAP cuts.

While the only House Republican hearing this year on SNAP focused on fraud, the Senate Democrats refused to allow any of their hearings on the Farm Bill to even include a focus on SNAP. This is unacceptable when nutrition assistance spending comprises more than two-thirds of the bill. The Democrats fail to see that they can’t win an argument if they concede it from the start.

To add insult to injury, neither side has the guts to even publicly admit they are taking away food benefits from legally-eligible children and working parents. The House Republicans try to imply that they are merely cutting out “waste, fraud, and abuse,” while the Senate Democrats claim they are merely “closing a loophole.” Both should be ashamed.

Now is precisely the wrong time to play political hunger games as Americans continue to drown. To really help hungry children, Congress must defend and strengthen SNAP.


Joel Berg is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

 

This commentary was originally published by Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. It is reprinted here with permission.

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