Republican lawmakers are on the defensive as the country heads into the holiday season, with cutbacks in food stamps stressing needy families while Congress debates how much more to cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). “Which of your constituents do you think should go hungry?” asks a holiday card electronically delivered to members of Congress this week. It points out that the proposed cuts mean “less food and more hunger for millions of low income seniors, veterans, working families with children and disabled Americans.”
At the same time, assistance to farmers, traditionally coupled in the same bill with SNAP, appears to be weathering the GOP’s budget-cutting knife just fine. “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,” said Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN), invoking the Bible to explain his vote earlier this year to cut food stamps while calling for increased crop subsidies for farmers. His family farm received more than $3.5 million in federal money over the years, making him the poster boy for 33 members of Congress who voted to cut food stamps, a program that helps the least among us, while having no qualms about accepting federal largesse for their farm businesses.
Twenty percent of Fincher’s constituents are on the SNAP program, says Jim Weill, president of Food Research and Action Center, which launched the website with the holiday greeting designed to trigger guilt over who is left behind during these days of plenty. Weill recalls the language of his college days to explain the easy passage of farm subsidies and the mounting resistance to SNAP. The farm part of the bill is “distributional,” he says; food stamps are “re-distributional,” a concept that is toxic in American politics.
Republicans who rail against big government have SNAP in their target sights because of the program’s growth in just the last few years. In 2006, 25 million people were on food stamps, and at the end of last year, the number was 47 million; now it’s 48 million, almost a doubling in seven years. Republicans see those numbers and assume there must be waste, fraud, and abuse. Democrats attribute the growth to the weak economy and more people needing assistance. One in four are not in the program even though they’re qualified.
Tamara Hinton, a senior staff member on the House Agriculture Committee, says Republicans have been wrongly pigeonholed as heartless for their efforts to reform SNAP. She points out that the reduction in SNAP benefits that took effect November 1 was part of President Obama’s stimulus package, which expired, and that the president had dipped into those funds twice to fund other initiatives, including the first lady’s healthy eating initiative. Obama promised to restore the funds in his budget, which he did, but his budget went nowhere on Capitol Hill.
It’s wrong to characterize Republican efforts to reform SNAP as kicking people off food stamps, says Hinton: “They’re not being kicked off. They no longer qualify.” Republicans want stricter work requirements for able-bodied men in particular; Democrats counter that the jobs aren’t there in a weak economy and that the working poor need food assistance because wages are low.
Senate Democrats tightened requirements to save $4 billion over 10 years. House Republican reforms would save $39 billion over 10 years. House and Senate leaders known as the Big Four, the chairs and ranking members of the Agricultural committees, are working to resolve that and other discrepancies in an effort to win passage of a farm bill with SNAP benefits by December 13, when the House recesses for the holiday.
Meanwhile, in the real world, a family of four is heading into the “pain point” of the month where they will have $36 less for groceries on their electronic SNAP card, says Nancy Roman, president and CEO of the Capital Area Food Bank. “We don’t want to see SNAP cut,” she says. “People at the bottom of the pyramid don’t have enough to eat, and we do need to be subsidizing food.” Roman says she hopes that once lawmakers get past the current impasse they will address what she calls “urban hunger,” where obesity and malnutrition exist side by side and incentives are needed for people to make healthier food choices.
For now, though, as lawmakers sift through the numbers and the partisan disagreements, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken matters into his own hands to announce $4.5 million in emergency food assistance grants to help food banks, churches, and charities cope with the spike in need prompted by the reduction in SNAP benefits. For those on the front lines working with people in need, the notion that more cuts could be coming seems incomprehensible. “It’s outrageous they’re still considering $4 to $8 to $10 billion cuts in the conference committee,” says Weill. “That will create real hardship.” And more cuts could create real political problems for Republicans if they head home for the holidays without passing a farm bill, or worse, pass one that worsens the food insecurity of millions.