Let Them Starve?

03.01.13

Washington’s Hunger Games: Sequester’s Cuts to Food Assistance Programs

Shame on the lawmakers trying to slash nutrition programs when they are needed most—and pretending the increased use of programs is the result of fraud, says Joel Berg of the sequester’s most heartless cuts.

There’s an old African proverb: “when the elephants fight, the grass loses.” In Washington’s sequestration battle, when the elephants and donkeys fight, low-income Americans are the grass.

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Bowls of frozen peas sit on a tray in the kitchen at Meals On Wheels of San Francisco on February 27, 2013 in San Francisco, California. Programs for the poor like Meals On Wheels, which delivers meals to homebound seniors, could be affected if $85 billion in federal spending cuts come down due to sequestration. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

All Americans would be harmed by the mindless, across-the-board budget slashing of the sequester, cutting food safety inspections, air traffic control, the FBI, and health research. Yet the cuts would do even greater harm to the tens of millions of Americans already suffering from poverty, hunger, and food insecurity.

According to the White House, 70,000 low-income children would be kicked off Head Start, the early childhood education program. Another 125,000 struggling families would lose rental assistance, placing them at risk of losing permanent housing. And 100,000 formerly homeless people, including veterans, would be removed from programs to prevent them from returning to the streets.

The cuts to nutrition assistance programs would be particularly heartless and counterproductive.

Even without new cuts, because of the continued weakness in the U.S. economy, an astounding 50 million Americans, including nearly 17 million children, already live in households defined by the federal government as “food insecure,” which means they either go hungry or struggle to ration food. It should be no surprise, then, that more Americans now need federal nutrition assistance.

If the nation faced an extended drought and then subsequently suffered from more wildfires, even the most conservative members of Congress would surely support more federal funds for fighting fires, especially if the fires threatened their own districts. Likewise, given that an extended economic downturn has increased hunger, Congress should support increased federal aid to fight hunger, especially as the problem persists in every congressional district.

President Obama pledged to end child hunger in America by 2015. In a recent paper for the Center for American Progress, I proposed concrete ways for the president to start achieving that goal by strengthening nutrition programs. Congress should help him do so. Yet many lawmakers are doing just the reverse, trying to slash those nutrition programs when they are needed most, giving the false impression that the increased use of programs is the result of fraud.

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Meals On Wheels of San Francisco driver Jim Fleming (R) delivers meals to Yvonne Jarkowski on February 27, 2013. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)
The leaders who support such cuts insist they are reducing waste, fraud, and abuse. That’s simply not true. They are taking food from hungry working parents, seniors, and children.

In a display of world-class chutzpah, the very conservatives who created the policies that sank our nation’s economic ship now want to take away food life preservers from the drowning.

Shame on them.

The Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) provides medically designed nutrition supplements to low-income pregnant women and children under 5. This highly successful program reduces both hunger and obesity, and has prevented more than 500,000 babies from dying at birth. Yet the sequester, supported by many members of Congress who label themselves as “pro-life,” would remove 600,000 mothers and infants from WIC. Not only is such a cut heartless, it also will cost the nation far more in long-term health care spending than would ever be saved by the cuts. Also under the sequester, federally assisted senior meals programs like Meals on Wheels would serve 4 million fewer meals to seniors.

Even worse, cuts to federal anti-hunger programs aren’t limited to the sequester. In 2010, in order to pass a new bill to fund school meals, Congress and the president cut billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the new name for the food stamps program. The passage of this bill is vividly portrayed in the new film A Place at the Table. Now every SNAP recipient in America could be pushed over a “hunger cliff” that will take away benefits to pay for groceries. For families of three, the cut would be $20 to $25 a month—$240 to $300 a year, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

To add insult to injury, Congress may pile on still more cuts. The Senate passed a farm bill that would cut an additional $4.5 billion from SNAP and, not to be outdone in harming poor people, the House Agriculture Committee passed a farm bill that would cut $16 billion from SNAP.

The leaders who support such cuts continue to give the false impression that they are merely reducing waste, fraud, and abuse. That’s simply not true. They are taking food away from hungry working parents, seniors, and children. They are slashing programs that, if expanded, could end hunger in America

Not only will tens of millions of Americans suffer from the reductions, but the cuts will imperil the country’s overall economy and national security. No superpower in the history of the world has remained a superpower if it has failed to feed its own people. The time is long overdue for all Americans to have access to nutritious, affordable food.

The stakes are too high for continued political grandstanding. The hunger games must stop now.