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Food stamp cuts, farm bill details affect real lives

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THE ISSUE: Food stamps; OUR OPINION: Cuts in subsidies and food stamps are inevitable, but lawmakers should look closely at reality over rhetoric

Congress is trying to pass a farm bill for the third time in three years. There are no guarantees again. There is major disagreement from House to Senate and among lawmakers from different regions about key provisions in the legislation.

A favorite target of lawmakers from non-farming states is subsidies for the nation’s biggest crops. The Senate, before it headed off for the Memorial Day recess, voted to limit the amount of government subsidies the wealthiest farmers receive when purchasing crop insurance.

The subsidies will get particular emphasis in the ongoing debate over the five-year farm bill that would cost almost $100 billion, particularly because they are politically an easy target at the same time that big cuts in the federal food stamp program appear to be on the way.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one who proposed subsidy cuts, offered examples of the impact on farmers with gross annual incomes in the three-quarter-million range. What better way to build support for reducing their payments than to offer Durbin’s summation?

“At a time we’re asking sacrifice from people in Head Start programs across America, can we be asking a little bit of sacrifice from 20,000 of the wealthiest farmers out of 2 million?” Durbin said.

Of particular focus is the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program, with both House and Senate ready to reduce the benefits received by one in seven Americans. But the chambers are way apart on the amount.

House legislation would cut about $2.5 billion a year, or a little more than 3 percent, from the food stamp program. Senate legislation would cut less than a fifth of that amount.

As Congress debates exactly how many billions of dollars to cut from the government’s main food-assistance program for low-income Americans, a new report finds that the existing program already fails millions who must constantly worry about how to feed themselves and their families.

According to the International Human Rights Clinic of NYU Law School, the four biggest food-assistance programs fall short for as many as 50 million food-insecure households. Eligibility requirements are already so strict that one in four households classified as food insecure were still considered too high-income to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Even families considered poor enough for food aid only get a small amount; for instance, the maximum benefit for a family of four is $668 a month, or a little under $2 per meal for each family member.

To demonstrate the reality of surviving on food stamps, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., recently spent a week eating on $4.80 a day, mainly consuming ramen noodles, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a banana. “I’m hungry for five days ... I lost 6 pounds in four days,” Murphy said upon concluding the experiment.

He also stated that nutritious food and produce are far out of reach for people living on SNAP benefits. Indeed, obesity and related diseases are common among SNAP recipients who simply can’t afford nutritious food.

As a result, many families can no longer rely on these benefits. Instead, they increasingly have no choice but to turn to emergency food pantries run by charities. In the wake of the financial crisis, 37 million people relied on these emergency food providers — a 46 percent increase from 2005. These charities are struggling to accommodate the influx of needy people who are supposed to be covered by government programs. As for the recipients themselves, the stigma against hungry people has made many people feel humiliated to turn to such programs.

Those looking to cut SNAP and other safety net programs have painted recipients as perpetually unemployed people who have become “dependent” on the government because it’s easier than getting a job. In fact, more than 80 percent of families receiving SNAP include a working adult.

Despite the stigma, the reality is that the many low-income or part-time jobs available to these Americans simply do not pay enough to sustain a family’s survival. Most of the remainder of SNAP recipients are disabled or elderly and cannot work.

One woman interviewed for the report is struggling to feed her daughters because her medical treatment has left her unable to work:

“My food stamps are depleted after maybe 2-1/2 weeks. That’s when our cupboards become bare and there isn’t anything left in the deep freezer. I start to worry about where our next meal is coming from. The first thing my daughters do when they come home from school is look in the refrigerator and say, ‘Well, Mom, we don’t have this, we don’t have that.’ I hear those words and I feel like I’m not providing for my children. Where I live, we are only allowed to go to the food pantries every three months. I get vegetables and bread there, but not meat. Not having meat is difficult for my girls. I make sure they always have something to eat—many times it’s canned goods.”

Though the recession spiked SNAP enrollment by 76 percent, the program is still facing even steeper budget cuts that would take food aid away from more than 12 million people. Automatic sequestration cuts already hurt other nutrition programs, like Meals on Wheels for disabled seniors and the Women, Infants, and Children aid program (WIC) to provide pregnant women and their children with essential nutrients for proper development.

As lawmakers return to Washington in early June to resume work, the farm bill is high on the agenda. Reaching agreement over food stamps will be a key if legislation is to pass. Hopefully, middle ground can be found, reducing the negative impact on as many people as possible. Before it is, however, the ideological divide among the nation’s leaders over the role of government in helping the poor will be clear for all to see.


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