PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: Anger in the area over cuts to food stamps
By Alfred Lubrano, Inquirer Staff Writer
For the first time in 40 years, Congress has decided to give subsidies to farmers - many of them rich - while offering nothing to fund the food-stamp program that experts believe keeps poor Americans from starving.
The decision last week comes after conservative Republicans in the House blocked a bill that would have slashed $20 billion from the food-stamp budget, saying the cut was too small.
The antipoverty community in Philadelphia and throughout the nation is convulsed with anger. It is convinced that it is witnessing a coordinated GOP effort to gut the food-stamp program, considered by some the most important part of the U.S. safety net. Republicans say they don't want to end food stamps but rather whittle down the program until it resembles aspects of the welfare program, which was changed in 1996 to make people work for their benefits.
"The House is playing political games with a program that serves as a lifeline for nearly 50 million Americans, including 1.8 million right here in Pennsylvania," said Julie Zaebst, interim director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. "They've made multiple attempts over the past year to cut and weaken SNAP [another term for food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program].
"But last week's action was a new low."
Members of Congress involved in the decision not to fund food stamps did not return calls last week.
Rachel Sheffield, policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that at about $80 billion annually, SNAP needs to be reformed by making people work for their benefits, like welfare.
Also like welfare, it should become a block grant program, she said. Currently, food stamps are an entitlement program, meaning that nearly anyone who is eligible can get them. A block grant would severely limit food-stamp benefits.
"We want to move people away from government dependency, and toward self-sufficiency," Sheffield said.
As it happens, 62 percent of families with children who receive food stamps have a working adult in them, according to the Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP. And 87 percent of families that receive SNAP benefits in any given year were employed either during the previous or following year, USDA figures show.
While many SNAP recipients work, their jobs pay so little, said Steveanna Wynn, executive director of SHARE Food Program in Philadelphia, an antihunger organization.
"People need a living wage and that doesn't happen to everyone in this country," she said, adding a question: "It's OK to subsidize farmers but not to give the poor enough to eat?"
Criticizing his colleagues, Rep. Bob Brady (D., Phila.) said: "They don't think any poor people exist. It's totally ridiculous. They're trying to appease the people who don't want food stamps."
Since 1973, the U.S. Farm Bill has always included two things: subsidies for farmers and food stamps for the poor and working poor. It enjoyed bipartisan support, and Congress voted for it every year.
Now all that has changed.
Liberals say they are chagrined that while food stamps were left out of the bill, about $20 billion is being given to farmers and agricultural corporations.
Many conservatives feel the same way - at least about the farm money.
Daren Bakst, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, decried the "sneaky" awarding of mega-dollars to programs such as crop insurance for rich farmers. "The House wound up spending more than President Obama would have," Bakst complained.
Jennifer Stefano, a Philadelphia-area tea party member, called the Farm Bill "a disaster," adding: "It's a handout going to big agribusiness to feed from the trough of the federal government."
Ultimately, the choice by the House not to act on food stamps is viewed with foreboding by people who advocate for the poor.
"What the House did is troubling and outrageous," said Liz Schott, senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit organization that develops policy options to alleviate poverty.
"It means they hold SNAP in such low esteem that it will be vulnerable to big cuts."
Some Republican House budget plans talk about cutting $100 billion from SNAP in 10 years. Recently, the Senate voted to cut SNAP by $4 billion.
"How shocking this all is," Schott continued. "SNAP is really the basic safety net we have in this country. It is the difference between having hunger and not."
Although SNAP's annual $80 billion price tag sounds high, it works out to $4 a person a day in benefits, advocates say. And a month's supply nearly always runs out in three weeks, research by Drexel University's School of Public Health shows.
The number of people on food stamps in the area has increased dramatically recently, mostly because of the recession, experts say.
For example, about 51,000 people receive SNAP benefits in Montgomery County, up 122 percent since December 2007, hunger coalition figures show. The number is up 115 percent in Chester County and 107 percent in Bucks County.
As the economy improves, the number of people getting food stamps is expected to go down, experts said, thus reducing the size of the SNAP program.
Many conservatives have criticized SNAP for what they call a pattern of "waste, fraud and abuse."
USDA figures show that SNAP fraud is less than 1 percent, one of the lowest figures of any federal program.
About 75 percent of SNAP households have either a child, a senior citizen, or a disabled person living in them, USDA statistics show. And half of recipients take home salaries equal to 50 percent or less of the poverty level - under $10,000 annually for a family of three.
At this point, it isn't clear when or if the House will take up SNAP funding. Advocates are expecting cuts, however, but hoping they're not too deep, said Wynn, adding, "There has to be some compassion somewhere."
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