As an infant born in Waterville, Maine, to a single, teenage mother, I relied on food stamps for the first four months of my life. My family's economic status later required me to participate in other federal assistance programs like Head Start and the National School Lunch Program, so that I would have access to adequate nutrition and greater opportunities. Today I am a successful young woman with an undergraduate degree from Wellesley College, a master's degree from Stanford University, and a bright future.
I know that food stamps (now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) and other forms of assistance gave me a chance at a life that my family could not provide on its own. I also know I'm not the only one.
SNAP has been America's first line of defense against poverty for nearly four decades. In 2011, SNAP lifted nearly 4.7 million Americans out of poverty, including over 2 million children. SNAP protects our nation's most vulnerable from falling into poverty and homelessness; over half of SNAP recipients are children, elderly or disabled. Contrary to the lies perpetuated by those who would make deep cuts to the program, SNAP is both effective and accurate, with a 96 percent accuracy rate (that percentage receive the benefits they are supposed to receive) and less than a 1 percent fraud rate. Participation in SNAP also closely follows economic indicators like the unemployment and poverty rates; we see a significant increase in participation when times are tough for all Americans and a significant decrease following economic recovery.
To my deep embarrassment and horror, many members of Congress are now considering making cuts to SNAP that would cripple the program and leave millions of Americans without access to adequate nutrition. Unable to come to an agreement on the nutritional side of the latest Farm Bill, Congress has passed a Farm Bill that only addresses agriculture and not SNAP. Now, a Republican working group has announced that it will draft a bill that would cut federal funding for SNAP by roughly $40 billion — more than half of its $78.39 billion budget. This drastic reduction in funding would cause millions of Americans to lose their benefits immediately.
These members of Congress like to think that churches, food banks and other local charities would pick up the slack created by these SNAP cuts when in fact, these local organizations are so small in scope and reach — providing only 6 percent of the aid provided by all federal nutrition assistance programs — that they couldn't possibly adapt to the immediate, immense demand they would experience if this cut were to pass. The hardest hit by this blow to SNAP would be the 1 in 5 American children who are currently food insecure. If this devastating proposal is passed, hundreds of thousands of children would lose access to free meals at school, and their families would be unable to provide them with adequate food at home. The effects of hunger on children are known to be far-reaching, including slowed and abnormal growth, impaired immune functioning and decreased performance in school. It is certain that these cuts would increase the number of kids at risk for health problems and school struggles while worsening the problem for those kids already affected.
Moreover, we would see immediate rises in poverty, homelessness and hunger among the general population. Four million Americans would lose their SNAP benefits immediately because states would lose their right to extend the three-month time limit for "able-bodied" individuals who are often under-employed, unemployed or on the edge of homelessness. These individuals frequently lack the skills and training necessary to obtain good, secure jobs. In an unprecedented move, a "work requirement" for half-time employment would be included in the new bill, but with no resources like job training, child care or transportation. States would be permitted to use half of the savings from these cuts to SNAP to fill the holes in their budgets however they may wish.
While the difficulty of balancing the federal budget and eliminating the growing deficit is certainly nothing new, we are for the first time in this nation proposing to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Will we make history by deliberately causing a giant spike in poverty and hunger for the sake of saving money?
Maryland needs our representatives to work with House leadership to forge bipartisan support for the protection of SNAP and to publicly oppose these proposed cuts. Our budget does need balancing, but not at the cost of letting millions of American children go hungry.
Jami-Lin Williams, a Baltimore resident, is a member of the grass-roots activist group RESULTS. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.