October 2, 2013 —
Food stamps, now called SNAP (short for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), are in the news because the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to slash nearly $40 billion from the program, which provides some measure of food security for nearly 48 million low-income Americans. (By comparison, the Senate, earlier this year, passed a measure that would trim about $4.5 billion in SNAP spending.) Under the House plan, an estimated 3.8 million people would lose SNAP benefits completely, while another 850,000 would see their benefits cut, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
Over the years, SNAP, one of the nation’s premier antipoverty programs, has been successful at keeping millions of people from falling into poverty—needy families with children, senior citizens, veterans, active-duty military, and working parents earning low wages. Most recently, SNAP helped make a significant difference in the lives of the unemployed who were unable to find work during the recent economic downturn known as the Great Recession.
While the House majority (the vote was 217 to 210) apparently believes that the recession is over and that their bill will help force people out of the food stamps program and into well-paying jobs, America’s working class lives in a different reality. They see an economy that is still in the doldrums, with nobody in Washington, DC doing anything about it (unless you consider this House bill as doing something about it). Sadly, this House solution favors the stick approach rather than the carrot. Only people with full bellies, who don’t have to worry about how to put their family’s next meal on the table, would propose these kinds of cuts in these economic times. (It almost makes one yearn for the bygone days of compassionate conservatism.)
One bright note in the House vote was the group of 15 House Republicans who bravely broke ranks with their GOP colleagues to vote against the bill. Among their number was our own Rep. Chris Gibson, R-NY, and we would like to salute him. (Pennsylvania’s Rep. Tom Marino, on the other hand, predictably voted with the majority.)
Perhaps Rep. Gibson’s decision to vote as he did took into consideration the difficult numbers from his own district regarding poverty. Perhaps he was taking to heart new census figures that were released in September. They reveal that last year 46.5 million Americans were living at or below the poverty line—nearly the highest level in two decades. This number represents 15% of the nation’s population (11.8% of families), and the rate is up 2.5% since just before the economic downturn began.
Just for the record, the weighted average poverty threshold for a family of four in 2012 was $23,492.
Here at home, poverty is no stranger. A snapshot of Sullivan County shows that of 29,222 total households, 8% have incomes below $10,000, 7.1% between $10,000 and $14,999, and 15.2% have incomes between $15,000 and $24,999. If you look only at the county’s 18,135 families (not households, but families), you find that 5% have incomes below $10,000, 3.7% between $10,000 and $14,999 and 11.3% between $15,000 and $24,999 (factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_12_1YR_DP03&prodType=table). These same census tables are not yet available online for Wayne and Pike counties in Pennsylvania.
Any way you measure it, too many of our neighbors are stuck in poverty, receiving a variety of forms of public assistance, including food stamps.
So, let’s talk about lifting people out of poverty. To do so will require cooperation and collaboration, not the kind of poison politics we have today. Most Americans agree that it’s in our interest as a nation, both for humane and economic reasons, to help people move from dependency to self-sufficiency. To achieve this, America needs to invest in policies and programs that address the underlying causes of hunger and poverty.
Polarized politics founded in ideology will not produce a solution. Neither the approach of just slashing safety-net budgets will work, nor the approach to indefinitely spending more on programs that we cannot sustainably afford.
Perhaps the solution lies in the center. Too bad so many of our leaders are unable to meet there and address our many problems.