WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Food Stamps Are Vital; Cuts Are Shortsighted

Oct 2, 2013

Timing is everything, sometimes. A couple of days after Pope Francis’ interview was published in which the pontiff stressed helping the poor instead of “obsessing” about abortion, birth control and gay issues – the same day the House voted to cut food stamps by $40 billion over 10 years – church readings seemed to address the subject in plain language.

(Were Tea Party types sitting in pews uncomfortable hearing that God notices those “who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor”? Amen.)

Bill Knight

The House’s cuts to SNAP are part of another attempted Farm Bill reauthorization and would decimate needy Americans’ family food budgets – between 1.7 million and 6 million would be dropped from the program, according to sources such as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities (CBPP).

The proposed cuts are $4 billion a year for a decade, a 5 percent reduction at a time when 1 in 7 Americans – some 47 million folks – use food stamps (now called SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The 217-210 House tally shows that all of Illinois’ Republican Representatives in Congress voted to cut SNAP.

SNAP helps low-wage working parents, seniors on fixed incomes, people with severe disabilities and adults who are unemployed or underemployed. Who’s that? According to the hunger-relief charity Feeding America,

* 76 percent of SNAP households included a child, an elderly person or a disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83 percent of all food-stamp benefits;

* SNAP eligibility is limited to households with gross income of no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline, but most SNAP households have income well below that; and

* The average SNAP household has a gross monthly income of $744; net monthly income of $338 after the standard deduction and, for certain households, deductions for child care, medical expenses and shelter costs; and countable resources of $331 (like checking accounts).

In Illinois, the poverty rate is 15 percent, according to the Census Bureau: 1.85 million of our neighbors are poor. The government’s official “poverty line” for a family of four is $23,000 a year.

Amy Terpstra of Heartland Alliance, an Illinois nonprofit that advocates for policy changes to help the poor, said, “Poverty still is at nearly unprecedented levels. The recovery has not trickled down to the people at the bottom of the economic ladder.”

Supporters of cutting food stamps such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) say they want to “restore the integrity of this safety-net program,” which they say is bloated and/or corrupt. But research from CBPP shows that increased enrollment in food stamps is connected to economic downturns, and it’s well-run.

SNAP “has one of the most rigorous payment error measurement systems of any public benefit program,” CBPP says, and the latest report from USDA’s inspector general found no problems with “high-dollar overpayments” in SNAP. Only 8 percent of food-stamp recipients also receive other government assistance, according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture is committed to helping reduce the number of people who rely on nutrition assistance programs, [but] over the course of the worst recession in decades, the rate of ‘food insecure’ households in the United States has remained steady.”

In U.S. News and World Report, Pat Garofalo wrote, “Food stamps are a vital lifeline to millions who are struggling to stay afloat in a weak economy. That we’re considering cutting food stamps at all when unemployment and poverty are high while incomes are stagnant is terribly depressing. But a $40 billion cut would simply be cruel.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi unsurprisingly said, “Even for what we have seen again and again, opposing minimum wage and other issues that help working families in our country, this is a new low.”

Meanwhile, last weekend’s Christian church readings echoed such feelings.

The Book of Amos said, “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor… The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: ‘Never will I forget a thing they have done!’ “

Psalm 113 added, “From the dunghill He lifts up the poor to seat them with princes, with the princes of his own people.”

And Luke 16 reminds us, “No servant can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

Timeless. And, timely.  

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.