This week has been a devastating one for children and the poor. It began with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urging members of the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee for "moral and human reasons" to "protect programs that serve poor and hungry people over subsidies that assist large and relatively well-off agricultural enterprises." Despite urgent pleas from a broad spectrum of faith leaders and advocates for the poor, the House committee voted to protect all the agricultural farm subsidies which primarily benefit the most well to do farms and to cut billions of dollars of benefits from programs that feed poor children and their families. The draconian cuts would affect all 46 million people who receive food stamps including 23 million children.
As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explains, "No other program under the Committee's jurisdiction would face any cut under the proposal, despite frequent calls for reform of the nation's farm subsidies—74 percent of which go to the largest, most profitable farms, according to the Agriculture Department based on 2009 data. These large commercial farms received an average annual government payment of more than $30,000 a year in 2009, while having an average annual household income of over $160,000." Who do we want our leaders to protect—non-needy farmers or hungry children?
The Supplemental Food and Nutrition Program (SNAP), or food stamps, provides targeted assistance for families when they need help most. Since the beginning of the recession millions of low and middle income parents have lost their jobs and the security of knowing their children would not go to sleep or to school hungry. With record numbers of families living in poverty and food prices increasing more rapidly than in decades, SNAP has been a critical support for millions of children while their jobless parents struggle to get their family finances back on track. A recent study by the Agriculture Department shows how essential the food stamp program is: it reduced the poverty rate by nearly eight percent in 2009, the most recent year in the study.
Hunger and malnutrition have especially devastating consequences for children because their developmental well-being depends on adequate nutrition. Hunger has been linked to low birth weight and birth defects, obesity, mental health problems, oral health problems, and poor educational outcomes. But SNAP makes a difference. The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients—three quarters—are families with children. SNAP lifted 5.2 million Americans above the poverty line in 2010—more than any other benefit program.
SNAP is also strong economic recovery policy. As the economy struggles, getting food stamps and other payments to low-income families is an effective way to stimulate the economy quickly. Families living paycheck to paycheck spend the money almost immediately on basic necessities, pumping dollars back into the local economy. Just one dollar of SNAP benefits creates a "ripple effect" through the economy, and research shows each $5 of federal SNAP benefits generates nearly twice that amount in economic activity.
Despite its proven success, SNAP remains a consistent target at budget-cutting time. This latest assault by the House committee means two million people would be cut off from food stamps completely and millions more would have reduced benefits. Hundreds of thousands of children would lose free school meals on top of their SNAP benefits. These additional changes on top of already enacted cuts will increase child and family hunger. The House of Representatives' new budget—labeled the Ryan budget—for Fiscal Year 2013 would fundamentally change SNAP by converting it into a "block grant" program and cut its funding by $133.5 billion—more than 17 percent—over the next ten years (2013-2022). A block grant would allow states to cap eligibility, create waiting lists, and/or sharply reduce or end benefits for millions of children and families still struggling to recover from the recession. It threatens the program's ability to respond when the American people need help most. At the exact same time the House was making these decisions, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office released a new report predicting the need for food stamps would keep growing through 2014 as American families continue to recover from the recession. The impact of more cuts on children and families who now receive a nutritionally adequate diet from SNAP would be devastating. Where is the justice in a vote to protect wealthy farmers over hungry children? Tell your Members of Congress that SNAP needs to be preserved as a lifeline for hungry Americans in hard times. There should be no hungry people—especially children—in rich America.
[Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.]