Feeding the Poor is a SNAP

by Sean Philpott, Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership

Political brinksmanship now seems as inevitable as the changing of the seasons. Currently, our illustrious leaders in Washington are playing a game of chicken, with House Republicans threatening to shut down the federal government and default on the national debt unless Senate Democrats or Obama Administration agree to defund the Affordable Care Act.

This schoolyard spat between the political parties would be almost comical if it didn’t threaten the health of the US economy or the wellbeing of so many American citizens. The only sure winners in this fight are media pundits and political comedians, both of who now have plenty of fodder for their Saturday night monologues and Sunday morning gabfests.

Largely drowned out by all the chest beating in Congress is something as equally disturbing to me, as it will adversely affect millions of Americans: the recent House vote to strip nearly $40 billion dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Policymakers refer to that program as SNAP, but you know it as ‘food stamps’.

That program, funded by the federal government but distributed by individual states, helps low-income individuals and families by food. Currently, almost 50 million Americans use food stamps. That’s more than 15% of the US population.

The percentage of people receiving benefits is increasing at a startling rate. Since the financial crisis of 2007, the number of SNAP participants has nearly doubled. This is true despite the fact that the US economy is again growing, despite the fact that the unemployment rate is dropping, and despite the fact the stock market is at a record high. So why the sudden push to gut this desperately needed program?

First and foremost, conservative politicians point to those very numbers to justify these cuts. If the economy is recovering and the number of jobless Americans decreasing, they argue, there shouldn’t be such a need for social welfare programs like SNAP. Unfortunately, that argument overlooks the tepid and unbalanced nature of the economic recovery.

Yes, corporate profits are up 50% since the start of the recession, but that has been achieved at the expense of the average worker. Companies are again hiring employees, but most of the positions currently available are low paying service jobs. These jobs simply do not pay enough the enable people to get off food stamps. For someone earning minimum wage, a full-time job yields a whopping $1,200 a month in income. That’s unlikely to cover even basic living expenses like rent, utilities, transportation and clothing, let alone food. So it’s no wonder that working families make up 72% of those receiving food stamps.

Opponents of social welfare programs like SNAP also like talk about fraud. When the House of Representatives voted to cut funding last week, one Congressman cited the example of Jason Greenslate as a reason why programs like SNAP should be eliminated. An unemployed 29-year-old surfer from California, Mr. Greenslate became a media sensation when a Fox News reporter filmed him going on a “food stamp binge,” buying lobster and sushi with his SNAP benefits. He is the modern day example of the 1980’s welfare queen.

Mr. Greenslate is also an outlier – one I suspect will soon be off the food stamp rolls. The vast majority of food stamp recipients are not able-bodied surfers manipulating the system. They are, as I mentioned before, the working poor. They are also children, the elderly, and the disabled. And they are veterans. Nearly a million SNAP recipients are active or former members of the US armed services.

Moreover, the stories we’ve heard about people using food stamps to buy champagne or caviar are just that … stories. The average benefit amounts to about $4.50 per person a day, barely enough to meet basic human caloric needs let alone buy filet mignon. If you doubt that, I suggest you take on Feeding America’s SNAP Challenge and live for a week on a food budget of $31.50.

Current cuts to SNAP will not address issues of unemployment, hunger and food insecurity, or welfare fraud. The only thing it will do is prevent nearly 4 million poor veterans, children, and elders from receiving food stamps. It is also penny-wise but pound-foolish. The $40 billion in savings from this program may lead to higher expenditures for other programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Hunger and malnutrition are key determinates of health; those living in food-insecure households have higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and a host of other chronic ailments.

If Congress really wants to reduce the number of people receiving food stamps, the proposed cuts to SNAP are not the way to go. Rather, they should focus on more fundamental problems with the US economy: income inequity, stagnant incomes, and minimum wage laws that fall far below an actual living wage.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on September 26, 2013. It is also available on the WAMC website. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]

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