Viewpoints: Cutting nutrition assistance is recipe for hunger that will cost us all

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2013 - 5:51 pm

In the wake of the deepest recession in decades, nearly a quarter million Sacramento residents struggle to afford enough food, as do about one in six families statewide. In fact, the USDA just reported that so-called “food insecurity” remains at record-high levels across the United States.

Yet Republican leaders in Congress want to slash our nation’s principal defense against hunger, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly food stamps), by at least $39billion over 10 years. Under the plan, nearly 4million people – including low-wage workers, seniors, veterans, and extremely destitute parents and children – would lose access to SNAP aid next year. An additional 3million people would be kicked off SNAP each year for the next decade.

Such a draconian cut would drive our food insecurity rate up from alarming to appalling, dramatically increasing hardship. The average SNAP recipient lives on just $744 per month, making modest food benefits – typically under $1.50 per person per meal – critical.

Indeed, the House Republican plan includes one of the most extreme measures in SNAP’s history, which would hit California especially hard. It would allow states to end nutrition assistance (CalFresh in California) for people who want to work but can’t find jobs, regardless of how hard they’re looking or how few companies are hiring.

Such a proposal isn’t just harsh, it’s unreasonable given our current job shortage. Job seekers outnumber available positions by three to one, and nearly a third of the unemployed have been sending out résumés for a year or more.

Targeting people looking for work also runs counter to our fundamental American belief, that anyone who tries hard should have a fair shot at getting ahead.

SNAP provides that fair shot by helping people buy groceries while they are between jobs. Finding work is hard enough right now; doing so on an empty stomach would be even harder.

Contrary to popular perception, food banks couldn’t adequately feed the millions of families who would lose access to nutrition assistance under the House Republican proposal. Often they’re restricted to providing a three- to five-day food supply to clients once a month. Plus, they’re already stretched thin from the economic slump, and they’ll see even more hungry families this fall when a federal Recovery Act provision expires, causing a sharp drop in SNAP benefits.

Any policymaker concerned about job growth should oppose deep cuts to this nutrition program. By enabling cash-strapped families to continue spending at local businesses, SNAP sustains retail sales which help preserve or even create jobs for state residents. Economists estimate that each dollar of SNAP benefits generates as much as $1.79 in economic activity making the program one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus. That means the $7billion in federal funds that SNAP pumped into California last year boosted the economy by more than $12billion, increasing businesses’ sales, raising state and local tax revenue, and generating jobs.

But this dynamic also works in reverse. Deep cuts would reduce families’ spending, cut into sales, shrink tax revenue and cost jobs.

And that’s just a short-term consequence of slashing nutrition assistance. The long-term consequences are more insidious.

Children raised in households without enough food are at greater risk of cognitive impairment, have lower math and reading achievement, and are more likely to be held back a grade. And since doing poorly in school makes it harder to secure a good job, they may struggle to support their own families when they grow up, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

In fact, hunger puts us all at risk for a less prosperous future. Fewer productive workers make for a less productive economy which means a slower rise in living standards for everyone. Simply put, hunger causes hardship that we all ultimately pay for.

But here’s the good news: We all stand to gain when everyone has enough to eat.

Protecting and strengthening the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would move us closer to that goal. By helping spare families the suffering of hunger, SNAP gives children the opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential. In fact, girls with access to the program go further in school, have higher earnings, and are less likely to need public assistance as adults. In other words, SNAP provides a hand up that helps prepare the next generation to lead our nation toward greater prosperity for all.

Congress should protect and strengthen SNAP, because it’s not just about reducing hunger. It’s about investing in our future.

Eileen Thomas is executive director of River City Food Bank. Alissa Anderson is a member of the Sacramento Hunger Coalition.

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