Who Will Feed the Children?

Every force has an equal, yet opposite reactive force states Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Recent politics prove that Newton’s law is applicable elsewhere.

Once again a lack of cohesion among bipartisan entities and an ensuing sense of “hyper-partisanship” grows apparent with measures that undermine progress. Yet as the squabbling continues, so does the pain stemming from layoffs and unemployment with impending financial insecurity inevitably leading to hunger threat.

On June 12th the House Agriculture Committee passed its 2012 farm bill, H.R. 6083, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012 (FARRM). This bill includes $16.5 billion in cuts over the next decade to the federal food assistance program. As predicted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the bill would ultimately place several million Americans including children, elderly, and disabled, in a position of significant financial hardship and vulnerability to hunger. In addition, a predicted 280,000 children from low-income families will lose access to free school lunch. Paired with the predicted effects of this year’s drought, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes will lead to an approximately 5% increase in cost of items like meat, dairy, and eggs. The synergistic effects will create a “perfect storm in terms of increased need and decreased ability to handle it,” says Episcopal Community Services President John Hornbeck to 41 Action News of Kansas City, Missouri.

SNAP serves as a temporary source of aid for families at critical times of need in an attempt to enable people to get back on their feet. According to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), half of all new SNAP participants leave the program within 10 months, yet more than half of those who leave return within two years, demonstrating the cyclical nature of poverty and that people rely more heavily on SNAP at these temporary low points.

Significantly, as poverty deepens, there is a greater reliance on SNAP, and when the economy improves, this is also reflected in SNAP participation. Referred to as a “national safety net,” typical SNAP participants are those who have taken an economic fall and need transient protection by their government, a buffer to keep them from the devastating position of being unable to keep food on the table for themselves or their children. Long-term SNAP participants consist largely of elderly, disabled adults, and single parents and their children. Critical to note, children have the highest SNAP participation rate, which at 92% was 20 percentage points higher than the overall participation rate in the 2009 fiscal year.

Since 2007 and in light of the withering economy, SNAP participation has increased 70%, yet over a third of eligible participants are not receiving SNAP benefits, many of whom remain leery of the reliability of government aid. A SNAP participant with a family of four who, along with her husband, recently lost her job near the end of 2007 commented to the Huffington Post, “We would love to not have to rely on the government for something as important as food, but we simply can not.” She commented on how the food stamps system “causes a lot of extra stress [to have to watch] your only food source constantly on the line because of political battles.”

By providing temporary food security, a family can better devote its energy and resources towards adapting to an unstable economy and securing new sources of income and a stronger financial foothold. The FNS calculates that counting SNAP benefits as income, 13% of households would be lifted out of poverty. Thus, in low-income households, SNAP plays a significant role in lessening the burden of child poverty and improving child welfare. SNAP’s mission, according to the FNS, is to increase “the food purchasing power of low-income households, enabling them to obtain a more nutritious diet by preparing food at home.” It plays a vital role in helping families to maintain adequate, healthy nutrient standards, and by enabling families to invest in nutritious food, redirects dollars back into local food economies.

The deep SNAP cuts proposed by House Republicans make a stark contrast with the Senate-passed bipartisan version of the farm bill that would save a total of $23 billion but would not risk cutting aid to millions of Americans at their greatest time of need.

Like a tug of war game with the health and comfort of millions of fellow Americans at stake, progress is made, yet just as quickly these meager gains are again stripped away. Although President Obama has been disparagingly referred to as the “food stamp president,” the birth of SNAP marks a critical step toward reducing nationwide hunger. According to the USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, Kevin Concannon, SNAP is essential as it is the nation’s first line of defense against hunger. He says, “SNAP helps put food on the table for millions of low income families and individuals every month and, as the largest of the USDA’s 15 nutrition assistance programs, it has never been more critical to the fight against hunger.”

SNAP came about as a refurbished visage for the federal food stamp program. Overriding former president Bush’s veto, SNAP was conceived on October 1st, 2008 with the passing of the farm bill (the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008). The hope was to shed food stamp stigma and to rally greater enthusiasm (among both supporters and beneficiaries) with a snappy new name and an image of modernity in which the integrity of the program became a top priority.

In 2008 when Obama was elected, 28 million Americans were receiving food stamps. Due to the Obama administration’s foresight regarding the impact of the impending recession, reforming the federal food stamp program became a front stage issue in an attempt to provide a hunger buffer for the most vulnerable Americans.

The FNS reports that the challenge of SNAP is that it “serves a vulnerable population with critical and immediate needs.” Accordingly, in response to the recession’s insipid unemployment onslaught, SNAP’s progress towards modernization in recent years has insisted upon national standards of access, efficiency, and accuracy. By fiscal year 2011 the number of food stamps recipients had increased to nearly 45 million at-risk individuals reflecting improved access to millions of food insecure Americans.

Food stamps fraud has also become a huge target for remodeling SNAP, as waste and abuse directly take dollars away from children needing those benefits. As a result of President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign to “eliminate waste”, the FNS reports that in fiscal year 2010 the program reached its highest degree of integrity in history as the national overpayment error rate (the percentage of SNAP benefit dollars issued in excess of the amounts for which households are eligible) fell to 3.05%, and the underpayment error rate was calculated at less than 1.00%. Thus, more than 96% of the benefit amount is exactly correct, not more than or less than a household should receive, says Concannon.

Concannon explains that state agencies have been armed and equipped with new tools for combating fraud and trafficking in response to the observation that previous “slap on the wrist” penalties did little to deter future violations. Retailers committing fraud can be permanently disqualified from the program, and state agencies can now assess a monetary penalty on that retailer, proportionate to the amount of business the perpetrator is doing. State agencies have also had to satisfy new requirements for finding, searching, and punishing food stamps violators, who are invariably small stores who slip through the cracks rather than the supermarkets and larger stores that handle more than 80% of SNAP benefits and are more strictly monitored.

Furthermore, the reemergence of food stamps as SNAP gave the States greater flexibility in administering the program, which would also foster more straightforward navigation of the program’s tortuous rules of approval. In addition, revisions to the federal food stamp program have resulted in minimized overhead and administrative costs by providing opportunities for “categorical eligibility” in which individuals approved for other financial assistance programs may automatically be approved for SNAP.

Although some politicians have pointed the finger at program measures that have expedited the SNAP approval process, attributing them to increased spending on the program, such measures are essential to ensuring that individuals who are in crisis can be approved without significant strife and painful application approval wait times. Stringent seven-day statutory deadlines for destitute households are already a challenge to meet with rising caseloads and declining resources in recent years.

In addition, recent attacks on categorical eligibility will result in many working families losing access to SNAP because they own a modest car, which is often helping them commute to their jobs and therefore promoting employment stability. Thus, targeting modest financial assets or income undermines SNAP’s supportive function, and promotion of self-sufficiency via pre-requisite work requirements.

Many politicians support SNAP cuts under the impression that the Obama administration’s increased aid via food stamps is enabling unemployment. Proponents of the cuts also make erroneous claims that categorical eligibility has resulted in misuse of the program’s benefits. However, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2010 only 1.5% of all SNAP households had monthly disposable income (i.e., income after SNAP’s deductions) above the poverty line. Thus, even with the categorical eligibility option in tact, nearly 99% of all SNAP households are left in poverty despite having disposable income.

SNAP’s functioning has formed the cornerstone to lifting millions of struggling individuals out of poverty. Thus, in the wake of such devastating cuts occurring when unemployment is still above 8%, an estimated 2 to 3 million people will be taken off of SNAP benefits and neglected in their greatest time of desperation. Again, to reemphasize the issue of need, 71% of all spending on SNAP benefits go towards households with children, and nearly 55% of SNAP participants are children or elderly individuals and 20% of households receiving SNAP benefits include a disabled member.

Perhaps if we were omniscient beings, we could pre-empt impending crises and be better equipped to sidestep financial disaster. Politicians may proselytize about programs such as SNAP damaging the economy and discouraging rather than encouraging people to reach self-sufficiency; yet one may wonder whether these same individuals, along their assent to positions of prestige, ever found themselves needing help; whether at some point in their career development they ever took a misstep that necessitated immediate assistance; whether in taking the risks that command strength in entrepreneurialism, that leap of faith always led to a soft landing.

According to Politico, in the heat of the debates in the House that led to the decision to secure the $16.5 billion in savings, one republican spoke out to her fellow colleagues, urging them to open up their minds to the reality around them: “There is a great deal of need that is in America today, and it is growing every single day. I ask each and every one of my colleagues to look in their heart and look in their soul and if you haven’t volunteered at a food bank, I suggest this weekend that you go to your local food bank and volunteer.” As said by Heather Higginbottom, Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget, “budgeting ought to be about balance. Instead of focusing cuts on those who are working hard to make ends meet, we should be asking all Americans to do their part.” As Higginbottom concisely puts it, we are “protecting the top, hurting the hungry.”

Now is the time to question the humanity within. This is the time to reject political dogma and turn one’s faith toward the unbelievable feats humans are capable of achieving when given the proper resources at times of crucial need.

Subsistence survival renders a person on the defensive rather than the offensive; one can become entrapped in a vicious cycle where failed outcomes become almost inevitable without some kind of intervention. Yet often, the most incredible accomplishments occur after one has come in intimate contact with defeat. SNAP may provide that critical intervention that fosters an emergence from the cycle of subsistence living; a chance to redirect one’s energies towards securing stability and renewed vitality.

-Emily Kahoud

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