David Frum

05.17.13

Maybe Let's Not Cut Food Stamps?

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I too would love to one day drown government in a bathtub, but while unemployment is still over seven percent, let's hold off on cutting aid to society's most vulnerable.

As The American Prospect's Monica Potts reports, cutting the budget for food stamps puts already at risk families in a terrible position:

I spoke with Christie Irizarry, 22-year-old mother in Camden, New Jersey, who volunteers for Witnesses to Hunger, an advocacy organization affiliated with the Center for Hunger Free Communities. Christie works at Popeye’s Chicken part-time, and her manager won’t increase her hours. In fact, no one at the restaurant is getting the hours they want, but the manager keeps hiring part-time workers. Like most part-time workers, her hours are unpredictable, which makes childcare a challenge for her four-year old daughter.

She’s trying to get a job at a factory, but what she’d really love to do is open a beauty parlor. She gets $355 a month in food stamps. The roughly $615 she has from work, plus about $15 in cash assistance is the only other income she gets every month; her rent alone is $650. She uses her food stamps to buy meat and rice first. When the food runs out, which it sometimes does at the middle of the month, she goes to a local church. “The only time I go to church is when I really need it,” she told me. “I don’t take advantage because there’s a lot of people out there suffering.” To make her food money last, she eats a lot of nonperishable foods like peanut butter and Ramen, noodles that cost less than a quarter per package.

That families are stretching their food budgets by eating less-healthy foods is a big problem for Chilton. “A young child, under the age of 3, the brain is growing so fast, it’s developing 700 neurons a second,” she says. “When that child doesn’t have enough food to feed the brain, all of the body's systems shut down.” Hungry kids are less likely to play and explore in all the ways that help them learn, and, if their parents are hungry, then mom and dad are not going to be interacting with their children in ways researchers know are important for child development. “Even if it’s just a week out of a month, even if it happens three times a year it has an impact. We know that through our research.”

I'd prefer to replace our poverty programs with a simple check each month, and I'd like to hope people can be trusted to handle their basic life decisions if only they have enough cash. But that conversation is one better had when the economy returns to full strength. That's not right now, so cool it on cutting aid to our country's poorest citizens.