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December 09, 2016
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Punishing the poor

Somebody standing in line with you at the grocery store sometime this month likely will be paying with a SNAP Access card. SNAP is short for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, what we used to call food stamps. The Access card is like a debit card; once a month each state electronically deposits a predetermined amount of money in each recipient’s account. The funds for the program come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Now on Capitol Hill in the debate over the proposed 2012 Farm Bill, the program is facing the prospect of meaningful cuts as part of the larger plan to reduce the budget deficit. We believe such cuts would callously punish the poorest people among us.

There are 46 million Americans receiving SNAP benefits. Nearly half (45%) of participants are children and nearly nine percent are senior citizens. Roughly 93% of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line, defined in 2012 as a four-person family living on less than $23,050 for the year.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in 2010, “most people who received SNAP benefits lived in households with very low income, about $8,800 per year on average in that year. The average monthly SNAP benefit per household was $287, or $4.30 per person per day. On average, SNAP benefits boosted gross monthly income by 39% for all participating households and by 45% for households with children.”

The food stamp program is one of the largest antipoverty efforts left from the days of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and by all measures, the program really does work. In 2010, SNAP lifted about four million people out of poverty, including two million children. Nearly half of all households with children receiving food stamps are the working poor; despite having an income, they fall below the poverty line.

Today, 15% percent of Americans live in poverty. (Before the Reagan-era cuts, that figure had fallen to 11% of the populace.) In the Upper Delaware Valley between 2007 and 2011, 16.7% of Sullivan County, NY residents were living below the poverty line, while in Wayne County, PA that figure was 10.6% and in Pike County, 9.3%

Now, a new Farm Bill that would cut food stamp funding is on the table in Congress. The Senate’s version would cut $4.5 billion over 10 years. (In fiscal year 2011, SNAP paid out $78 billion.) The House has not yet voted on a Farm Bill, but the House Agriculture Committee’s version would cut $16 billion over 10 years, and some Republican legislators want to see almost double that figure, arguing that food stamps create a kind of entitlement society. These proposed cuts could mean 500,000 households losing $90 a month, and an estimated nearly two million people could lose food stamps altogether.

To us, this seems counterproductive; all it will do is help create more hungry people and this seems unnecessarily cruel. As we see it, too many Americans have the misguided belief that cutting these benefits will punish a bunch of freeloaders. Welfare reform has already addressed that; 20 years ago, 41% of food stamp recipients received cash welfare benefits, a number that has now dropped to 8%. If there is fraud, we believe it should be rooted out and the criminals punished but, in our opinion, slashing the food stamps program would not be punishing freeloaders or targeting criminals. It merely would penalize people for being poor or disabled and would condemn millions of children to reduced food security.

One measure of a society is how it cares for its weakest members.

This month as Congress negotiates how to keep the country from falling off the “fiscal cliff,” legislators must find other ways to cut spending than on the backs of society’s most vulnerable people.