Cutting food stamp program should be unimaginable

(September 30, 2013)

When Martha Hoover created the Patachou Foundation to feed healthy snacks to children, she partnered with the Legacy Center, which runs after school programs for Indianapolis Public Schools. She was told not to expect the kids to express thanks. In fact, the opposite was true. Not only were the children gracious, they were incredibly grateful.

One 6-year-old girl held onto the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she was given. Martha asked, “Don’t you want to eat it?” The first grader answered, “I am saving it for my sister.” “And what if I give you another one?” Martha inquired. The little girl put the first sandwich away and ate the second with gusto. Another child, finishing her second bowl of turkey noodle soup, asked, “Is this what they call real food?” In a land where we throw food away, this should be unimaginable, but it isn’t.

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a farm bill that proposes to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, SNAP, over the next 10 years. This is in addition to $19 billion, allocated in 2009 during the Great Recession, that will disappear on Nov. 1. The loss of benefits will hit everyone: seniors, single parents, veterans and 22 million children. It will take away 21 meals per month for a family of four.

The bill’s proponents assert that those who need food stamps will receive them. Only individuals who expect to be paid just to sit on their couches will lose benefits. But the fact is that SNAP has long authorized states to cut people from rolls who refuse to work or participate in a job training program after three months. The new provisions are more draconian. They would end food assistance for people who want to work but can’t find a job or live in areas where there are insufficient job training programs.

It is disingenuous to require job training and then not provide funds for the creation of such programs. It is insincere to have a work requirement when there are not enough jobs at the skill levels of the applicants. Current law lets governors request waivers from work requirements if their state experiences high unemployment. Forty-five states have already received them. The new bill would do away with those waivers.

The bill would prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture from advertising SNAP in the media and limit other forms of outreach. The argument is that we don’t need more freeloaders. But the fact is that millions of food-insecure Americans who are eligible for the program, who want a hand up and not a hand out, don’t know about it. They skip meals or eat less. The fact is that 50 percent of Americans are one paycheck away from sitting at that same table.

Under the proposed plan, Indiana would lose $98 million in benefits from November through September of next year. This would affect 925,000 Hoosiers, 14 percent of our state’s population. It should be unimaginable, but it is not.

The increase in SNAP recipients is due to high unemployment, not system abuse. As David Sklar, director of Government Affair of the Jewish Community Relations Council noted, “Wall Street may have recovered but Main Street has not.”

Some believe that feeding the hungry is the job of churches and synagogues, not of government. Many congregations do what they can, through food pantries, feeding programs and financial contributions, but Jim Wallis of Sojourner reminds us that every house of worship would have to raise $50,000 a year to provide enough meals if we lost just $20 billion in SNAP benefits. The capacity does not exist.

Put aside the astronomical numbers for a moment. Just picture the face of a hungry 6-year-old girl refusing to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in order to help feed her family. It should be unimaginable, but it isn’t.

Sasso is rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.