SNAP cuts hurt: Moving from hunger to opportunity

SNAPPresident Obama asserted last week in his State of the Union address that what united us as a nation is “the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.” He rightly pointed out, however, that too many Americans are working just to make ends meet rather than to get ahead. Too many children live in families that wonder how they will afford groceries, make rent on time, and afford to heat their home in the frigid winter months given the meager wages many caregivers rely on just to get by.

This doesn’t have to continue to be a reality for millions of Americans nation-wide. In the fiftieth year after this nation declared a “War on Poverty,” we are charged to combat poverty and the hardships that accompany it, not to launch a war on the poor. The President’s speech and others in Washington have called us─ political leaders, advocates, citizens, neighbors, parents─ to action.

With a hopeful tone, the President called this a “year of action.” Now as fellow citizens, we have an opportunity for action. Today President Obama will sign a Farm Bill that contains huge cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly food stamps.  The bill cuts $8.6 billion over 10 years from a program that, just three short months ago, saw a rollback in benefits after the expiration of funds that bolstered families through better SNAP benefits during the recession.  As a result, demand at emergency food providers (soup kitchens, food pantries etc.) has skyrocketed and such providers are unable to keep up.

The cuts are entirely focused on a technical provision in SNAP regulations that has a large impact on the SNAP benefit amount for participants.  The provision tightens the connection between LIHEAP (the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) and SNAP and is commonly known as ‘Heat and Eat’.  ‘Heat and Eat’ has been characterized in many ways but few have gotten it right; it is a way for states to streamline the process for low-income households who qualify for more than one sort of help and, most importantly, a recognition of the inadequacy of the SNAP benefit and therefore a strategy for meeting the needs of families experiencing hardship.

The cuts may have been politically expedient because changes to ‘Heat and Eat’  “only” impact 15 states and the District of Columbia.  But what should we tell the seniors and families with children in these mostly cold-weather states whose SNAP benefit dropped by $29 on average in November and now will drop by about another $90 per month?  How will they fill their cupboards, let alone their stomachs?  The $8.6 billion comes straight out of SNAP benefit allotments and therefore straight out of household food budgets.  We are taking meals off the table for people who, by definition, are struggling to put food on their table.  Some have applauded the increase in nutrition education funds that is also in the Farm Bill.  Nutrition education is important, but all of the knowledge in the world about how to cook a healthy meal is of no use if there is no money to buy the ingredients.

In a country where nearly 16% of children live in homes where parents struggle to provide enough food, inaction is costly. Children’s HealthWatch and others’ research has shown repeatedly that inadequate access to food is harmful to children from the womb through to adolescence and adulthood, affecting birth weight, risk of birth defects, young children’s health, social, emotional and cognitive development, and older children’s ability to be successful in school, as well as physical and mental health and bone density. Let us for once call it like it is… a cruel cut that has impacts now in driving up rates of hunger and poor health among members of our society, like seniors and children, already experiencing the most hardship.  The future isn’t spared – we will pay for these cuts with the bodies and minds of children whose potential has been diminished.

There is nothing to be done to change this year’s Farm Bill now – we must look forward, working to ensure that families in states with these additional SNAP cuts are receiving the maximum benefit for which they are eligible and are being offered other resources to help them cope.   However, the next Farm Bill is a clean slate and we must start now to change the tone around SNAP, helping our nation to see it for the public health program that it is.

To set this nation back on track to opportunity for all, we must be ready to implement policies that ensure people are able to meet their most basic of needs. Opportunity for all begins with feeding our human capital.