Hunger gets a boost

Grocery prices may be rising — 1.5 to 2.5 percent next year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — but the ability of poor people to buy them is about to shrink. On Friday, benefits for 47.6 million Americans participating in the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly referred to as food stamps, will be reduced.

The size of that reduction is substantial — about $5 billion per year nationwide — and it amounts to about $36 less for a low-income family of four or $11 for an individual. It marks the expiration of the increased food stamp benefits financed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus bill, in 2009.

It's the first-ever reduction for the food stamp program and a shameful development, particularly given that the high unemployment that justified the increase four years ago continues to be a problem in this country. Making matters worse is that Congress is poised to cut the program even further — by as much as $40 billion over 10 years.

That's the reduction the House of Representatives included in their version of the farm bill but it's essential that negotiators reach a compromise closer to what the Senate approved, a $4.1 billion cutback over 10 years, or better yet, no reduction at all. That's not because the $500 billion farm bill can't stand for a bit of a trim but because taking food out of the mouths of the most vulnerable Americans is the worst place to save money.

The House plan would essentially kick 3.8 million people out of the program next year and millions more the year after. That's not fair to people who are eligible for aid because of a recession that was no fault of their own. And that's what the rise in food stamp eligibility has been about, a direct (and temporary) response to unemployment.

Opponents of food stamps have tossed out all sorts of falsehoods about the program in recent years — that benefits go to the undeserving, that the program is wasteful, that it discourages people from seeking employment. But the facts show none of these is true.

USDA surveys show the food stamp error rate is very low and in decline — down more than half since 2000. And it's hard to make the claim that the program discourages people from getting jobs when a high percentage (about 41 percent) of food stamp recipients live in a household with earnings — but don't make enough money to support their families. (Incidentally, about three-quarters of food stamp eligible households include one or more children and elderly and/or disabled people).

That's not an argument for making people dependent, it's an argument for why the minimum wage ought to be increased. After all, if working people could afford to feed themselves and their dependents, they wouldn't require government assistance.

Illegal immigrants are not eligible for food stamp benefits, by the way, nor are legal immigrants who have lived in the country fewer than five years.

It's also wrong to assume food stamp benefits are too generous. Beginning Friday, an individual living in Maryland is eligible for no more than $189 per month. In a 30-day month, that translates to slightly more than $2 per meal. That's not exactly living in the lap of luxury. And, of course, the payment may be reduced if the household receives other benefits such as Social Security or child support.

Such a major reduction in the SNAP program is likely to have an adverse impact on the economy, not only on retailers, distributors and truck drivers but on farmers. An estimated 16 cents out of every dollar spent in the grocery store ends up in the pockets of farmers, according to the non-profit Food Research and Action Center.

It is one thing to cut truly questionable spending in the farm bill, subsidies for big agricultural producers that help neither small farmers nor consumers, but it is quite another to withdraw support for such a basic lifeline to the poor. Cut nutrition and the first group to suffer will be children (who represent about half of beneficiaries) and the cost to society (lower student achievement and worse health to name just two certain impacts) will be great.

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