Lost in most of the corporate media coverage over the demise of the Republican farm bill last week is one of the country’s painful contradictions.
We are one of the richest countries in the world yet far too many here still go hungry. It should be a national disgrace, but it isn’t.
We should be reminded of this by Oklahoma’s U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas’s failed attempt to cut the nation’s food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as part of his 2013 farm bill, which didn’t pass the House. Lucas, a Republican, chairs the House Agricultural Committee, and pushed for the bill’s passage. The Senate is also now working on a farm bill.
While it’s true that Lucas’ bill also tried to end some subsidies for farmers, much of the controversy centered around the proposed SNAP cuts of some $20 billion over a ten year period that would have also eliminated food assistance for 2 million people. The proposed cuts prompted some Republicans, who have a majority in the House, to point out how much SNAP participation has risen during President Barack Obama’s tenure, as if that’s a bad thing, but the Obama-bashing still wasn’t enough to get the bill passed.
The real issue, often brushed aside, is that far too many people go hungry here and SNAP itself often doesn’t provide enough benefits for low-income people to make it through the month. For example, the organization Feeding America, notes that 90 percent of SNAP participants use all their allotted benefits by the third week of each month. After that, they must use food banks or find other ways to eat.
It’s true that SNAP participation has gone up by around 40 percent or more since the Great Recession, but that is only because so many people lost their jobs and were going hungry. Why is that so difficult for some people to understand?
According to Feeding America:
The dramatic increase in SNAP participation and costs is a result of the recession, not categorical eligibility. Our nation has seen the highest unemployment rates in nearly 30 years.
SNAP participation historically follows unemployment with a slight lag. SNAP participation grew during the recession, responding quickly and effectively to increased need. As the number of unemployed people increased by 94% from 2007 to 2011, SNAP responded with a 70% increase in participation over the same period.
As the economy recovers and people go back to work, SNAP participation and program costs, too, can be expected to decline. Unemployment has begun to slowly fall, and SNAP participation growth has flattened out. The Congressional Budget Office projects SNAP participation to begin declining in 2015, with both unemployment and SNAP participation returning to near pre-recession levels by 2022.
The number of Oklahomans enrolled in SNAP has skyrocketed as well, and program officials have even reduced eligibility requirements for the victims of the recent tornadoes, but that, too, will be temporary.
The bottom line is that SNAP only provides so much relief from hunger. The average benefit, according to Feeding America, is only $1.50 per meal per person. It’s extremely difficult to eat on that amount of money.
Feeding America points out that 16 million children in this country go hungry. The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma estimates that one in four children in this state “struggles with hunger” and that, overall, some 675,000 Oklahomans are at risk.
The idea that the federal government should cut food assistance is an absurdity. The government should increase SNAP participation and raise the benefit levels. People need to donate more money and goods to food banks. Schools should do more to feed students.
What we need is a systematic approach to end hunger in this country. Maybe we can get that idea embedded in a farm bill, but don’t count on it.