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September 5, 2013

Graph from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

When Congress returns from its summer recess in a few days on September 9th, the nation will be focused primarily on the debate surrounding the pros and cons of intervening in Syria. While this is incredibly important and deserves the attention it will merit (if you need some background read this explainer) it is important to remember that there is a litany of issues that our representatives will evaluate during the upcoming term.

On the domestic front, of major importance is the state of our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (occasionally referred to as food stamps), and the amount of funding that will continue to be dedicated to the program. This is a serious concern, particularly when considering that 47 million Americans are assisted by SNAP benefits, 22 million of which are children.

In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act responded to the economic downturn by increasing SNAP benefits for struggling citizens who qualified for the aid. The ARRA increased maximum monthly benefits by 13.6% with differing household structures receiving various increases in assistance.

For example, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a single-person household received an additional $24 a month, a two-person household received an additional $44, a three-person household received an additional $63 and a four-person household received $80 more per month.

On November 1st of this year, however, the cushion for families in need will expire and SNAP benefits will be cut across the board with the Congressional Budget Office predicting a cut of $5 billion throughout the 2014 fiscal year.

With regard to household allocations per month, a single-person household will lose $11, a two-person household will lose $20, a three-person household will lose $29 and a four-person household will lose $36. These amounts may seem relatively small, but must be considered alongside the fact that almost 80% of SNAP benefits are depleted during the first half of every month, and a full 90% used with a fourth of the month left to go. It is clear that every dollar is crucial.

Additionally, studies have shown (particularly one by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council) that SNAP benefits are allocated inadequately with false assumptions and unrealistic expectations concerning food access, actual cost of materials and time needed for food preparation. With all of this in mind, it certainly seems as if these cuts will serve as a monumental obstacle to families that are already struggling to make ends meet.

In Professor Harris-Perry’s course “The Politics of Environmental Justice” last semester, our class explored the state of food access within the city of New Orleans. After breaking into teams with various assignments, my group and I attended a focus group in the New Orleans Bywater neighborhood to hear from residents about their feelings on the state of food availability.

Focus group participants were asked about the SNAP program and its vitality to those within the neighborhood. Respondents asserted that it was extremely beneficial to residents, and guessed that a full 50 to 70 percent of those in New Orleans were using the program. When asked about what could happen if the program ended, all of the participants asserted that it would have dire impacts on the community.

The focus group made clear that residents have a difficult time achieving all of their nutritional goals due to mitigating circumstances. Among these limitations are availability of nutritious items within stores, limited transportation options, lack of funds for higher priced nutritious items, preservation problems, understanding of appropriate amounts of different servings, and familial pressures valuing taste over nutrition.

Graph from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Though it is clear that these cuts will have an extremely deleterious effect on the working poor, there are those in Congress who seek to further decimate the quality of life of those 23 million low income households by slashing the budget for SNAP even more. House Republicans have proposed a $40 billion cut to the program over the next ten years.

In a New York Times article published yesterday, Representative Stephen Fincher was quoted as saying, “The role of citizens, of Christianity, of humanity, is to take care of each other, not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.” Fincher is a Tea Party Congressman who collected $3.5 million in farm subsidies from the government from 1999-2012 and yet voted for a farm bill without SNAP benefits for the poor.

Though I’m sure there are those who would agree with the Congressman’s sentiment, if preventing 47 million low income Americans, and among them 22 million children, from food insecurity doesn’t constitute “taking care of one another,” it’s quite unclear what would. Food insecurity is a serious problem in this country, one for which the slashing of benefits does not seem to be a helpful solution.

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