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Please, sir, may I have some more?

There is a lot of activity involving food programs these days. At the state level, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proudly proclaimed that New York would become the first state with a food pantry or “stigma-free food access” at every school in the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY)  systems.

Is there really a need to provide college students in New York with access to free food? According to CUNY’s Interim Chancellor Vita C. Rabinowitz, the answer is “yes.” She said, “CUNY runs food pantries or provides food at 18 of our colleges. Yet research has found that almost 15% of our students may go hungry because they can’t afford food. According to studies by the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy, food insecurity is also linked to lower grades and absenteeism. The governor’s initiative to combat food insecurity on all public university campuses will have a significant positive impact on our students.”

Cuomo said, ‘Hunger should never be a barrier for those seeking to achieve their dreams of a higher education. New York is proud to be the first state in the nation to require every public campus to have a food pantry, ensuring that our students have all they need on the path to success.”

This initiative is part of a broader program called “No Student Goes Hungry,” which Cuomo announced in the 2018 State of the State Address. The program seeks to provide healthy food, locally grown if possible, to what the governor says are the nearly one million children in the state who don’t have adequate access to food.

Nearly everyone realizes that an adequate diet is necessary to maintain good health, yet at the federal level, there’s still a hard battle being fought to impose tougher work requirements for people to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP formerly Food Stamps). This battle is being fought as part of the Farm Bill, which Republicans in the house hope to pass by the end of September.

Republican Congressman John Faso, who represents Sullivan, Ulster, Delaware and all or parts of seven other counties, addressed the issue at forum in Callicoon on August 29. He said there would likely be a compromise on the issue. But he has supported the tougher work rules, arguing that they would help low-income workers get into better jobs and move away from relying on public benefits.

Democrat Antonio Delgado, at the same forum, had a much different take. He said, “With all of the hunger and the pain that people are feeling out there right now, the food deserts that people have to endure, why are we going about figuring out how to make it more difficult to eat for those people? I don’t get it.”

There are studies on both sides of the issue, but the ones that say low-wage workers will be hurt by the proposed rules are far more numerous than the ones that say low-wage workers will be lifted up by them.

Most people who are not children, elderly, or disabled and who receive SNAP benefits already work. According to a July study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the jobs they have include “nursing aides, orderlies, cashiers, cooks and retail sales clerks.” These jobs are at the lowest end of the wage scale, and do not require higher education degrees.

There is not a lot of employment stability in these low wage jobs, and employees who receive SNAP benefits could easily lose the benefits through no fault of their own if they lose their jobs. When they are working, they don’t earn enough money to afford the basics of life, so they use the SNAP program to help make ends meet.

So here’s the bottom line. Say you’re a nursing aide making low wages working 20 hours a week and you get laid off. If you don’t find a new job working at least 20 hours a week within three days, you lose your SNAP benefits for a year.  If it happens again you lose them for three years. What if you’re a single parent and have two kids in elementary school? Too bad, find another way to pay for your food.

You may sign up for a work training course and retain your benefits, but many areas of the country do not have these.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that under the work requirements proposed by the House, this could mean a reduction or an end to benefits for two million people. True, that would cut the cost of the SNAP program by an estimated $17 billion by 2028. But compare that to the CBO estimate that the Tax Cut and Jobs Act will add to the deficit over that same period of time: $1.5 trillion.

Rarely in Washington, DC have priorities been more clearly drawn, and food for low-wage earners is at the very bottom of the list.


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