Getting to the heart of cuts to food stamp programs

Last week the House voted 217-210 to cut $40 billion over the next decade from the nation’s food stamp program. Considering that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cost $78 billion last year, that’s a pretty substantial cut to the nation’s largest social safety net for the hungry.

It’s a stunningly calculated move by the GOP, who fought Democrats because proposed cuts to SNAP in an earlier rendition of the bill — a measly $2 billion a year — just didn’t go far enough. I say calculated because not only did the GOP manage to hold up the vote on the Farm Bill until the SNAP program was stripped and added to a different bill, but the Republicans managed to waste everyone’s time pushing through steep cuts to a vital program that have no chance of making it past President Barrack Obama’s veto stamp.

In addition, the GOP pushed for increased restrictions, including denial of benefits to able-bodied adults without children because the presumption is that they should get off their asses and get back to work. This, despite the fact that the majority of new jobs created during the recession have been low-wage jobs, particularly here in Nevada, such as fast-food work that pays wages that even those companies acknowledge would not be livable on one job alone. The new restrictions would also require more job-training requirements for parents (because working parents totally have time for more required training and have no problem paying for childcare for more training). Meanwhile, the GOP-approved restrictions would end publicizing the program.

Why do I feel like they are turning food stamps into a back-alley abortion? (Psst: Do you know where I could score some help to feed my kids?)

Meanwhile, back in reality … it’s interesting that Republicans have singled out the food stamp program for such aggressive cuts and user-unfriendliness. After all, SNAP doesn’t even register on the list of the top expenditures by the government — even amongst social safety net programs. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, defense, social security, and Medicare/Medicaid account for 19, 22, and 21 percent of the federal budget, respectively — or a combined 62 percent, or more than $1.6 trillion. Social safety net programs — such as Earned Income Child Credit, SNAP, and housing assistance, to name a few — accounted for a combined 12 percent of the federal budget, or about $411 billion. So, to put it another way, if you add up all the money spent on ALL safety net programs, you still don’t touch the $773 billion spent on social security. It sort of puts the paltry $78 billion spent on SNAP last year in perspective, no?

Indeed, as my friend and Lutheran Pastor Julia points out on her blog, truly the SNAP program represents the least we can do for our nation’s hungry.

[W]e always think about how Lazarus would have loved the crumbs from the rich man’s table. We make a big deal about how little the rich man could have done and how much it would have helped them both. But, in truth, SNAP is just table scraps, it’s nothing but crumbs. Congress could have passed that legislation and it would have been the merest noblesse oblige, but they couldn’t be bothered to do even that.

It is a pittance. it is barely a blip on the radar of federal spending. And yet, we have politicians telling us that it is too much, that it is somehow symbolic of letting people get away with being lazy. Considering how often those on the Right like to cloak themselves in Christianity as symbolic of their moral fortitude, these votes to reduce the already tiny amount we give to help the truly needy amongst us — because what could be more vital to survival than food? — seems unnecessarily cruel and completely devoid of the charity and mercy that Jesus taught.

This is the cruelest kind of stunt, really. They are literally taking food from the mouths of babes. One in seven Americans uses food stamps, with the majority being children, seniors, and the disabled. Here in Nevada, there are more than 362,000 SNAP recipients, and ours is a state that routinely has low participation, which means that there are even more people out there that need assistance and who could qualify, but don’t ask for help. In fact, there are more than 340,000 people in our own community who are living hungry or with food-insecurity. That’s almost as many as who use food stamps in the entire state! So much for milking the system.

I know a big part of the disconnect for Republicans is this idea that there are these corrupt, lazy people just bilking the system. I can tell you from first-hand experience that when you live in true poverty and face real hunger, you don’t have time to play games. Those members of Congress who are taking the “SNAP Challenge” to live on $4.50 a day, representing the $133 a month many families receive, is a noble PR stunt, but hollow in many ways. After all, those congressional members still go home to secure and safe homes and have the comfort that their hungry bellies are temporary (or they can even “cheat” on their challenge when nobody is looking). When you are actually weighing pulling food out of the trash because you have no money and no food that day, that’s the real challenge. It’s a challenge I faced. I worked two jobs while I was in high school to help my single mother pay the bills and we still got the heat shut off and had no food at times. I can remember days when the only meal I had was a peanut butter sandwich. That’s it.

And it can be really easy to judge when you haven’t truly walked a mile in someone else’s shoes. Recently, I was talking to one of my brothers about the proposed cuts and we got into a debate about the merit of food stamps. He worked for more than 10 years in the fast food industry before recently getting his college degree. He told me about a couple of people he worked with over the years who got food stamps, but could have afforded to stay off assistance if they had made better choices. My brother’s contention was that people just needed to make better choices — stay off drugs, don’t get pregnant, be better at budgeting your money. I’m eight years older than my brother and I remember a time when our parents were on welfare and food stamps before he was born. I told him about how both of our parents worked full-time jobs, and yet, couldn’t make ends meet. Because the fact is, when a job has low wages and low earning potential, you can essentially get trapped in a cycle of poverty. On top of this, my mother was a teen mom (with me) who had no college education, so this limited her lifetime earning potential as well.

It’s incredibly easy — and even condescending — to think that if you just make the right choices it will never be you. But I can tell you, I was a straight-A student who worked three jobs to put herself through college. I didn’t get pregnant until I was 33 and in a stable, loving marriage. I’ve never done illegal drugs. And yet, there I was, at the age of 19, looking at food in a dumpster because I was starving. Literally starving. Should I have dropped out of school and cut my lifetime earning potential by more than half — thereby sealing my fate to continue the cycle of poverty in my family? (Indeed, college graduates stand to earn 84 percent more than those with a high school diploma.) And really, even if somebody makes bad decisions, does that mean they deserve to starve? Is that really who we want to be as a people? Is that really the civilized thing to do?

Ultimately, this whole thing is a cruel joke. The cuts to SNAP will not go through. But in the meantime, states are already implementing similar cuts a restrictions. The net result will be the same — more people going to bed hungry. The irony is, we have programs to feed the hungry in countries on the other side of the world, but some of the richest among us want to cut the programs that help just a fraction of those who are hungry right here in America. We want to feed the world, and we can’t even feed our neighbor. Worse yet, when our neighbor needs a helping hand, we want to snatch that meal right off their plate.

Perhaps this is a good time to remind House Republicans of Marie Antoinette. Be careful how you talk to us peasants. Telling them “to eat cake” didn’t go so well for Antoinette. And I like to think it won’t go so well for you in the 2014 election cycle.

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