Food Insecure Means Hungry !
The United States Department of Agriculture released a report the first week of September, 2013 that found for the fifth year in a row one in six Americans are “food insecure” — millions of them children. Although government language often deals in euphemisms, this one dates back to the Reagan administration in the 80’s when White House officials denied there was hunger in the United States. Since then, researchers at the Agriculture Department do not use the word ‘hunger’.
SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, known to most Americans as food stamps, provides necessary sustenance to families in need. For four decades, food stamps have been a bulwark against hunger and malnutrition for millions of American families whose income falls below the poverty line. Most of the millions are children, the elderly, disabled and working poor. Before the 2008 recession, 26 million received food stamps. Since then, the number has grown to almost 47 million. Food stamps have become essential to the unemployed who may never have needed them before.
There is an ongoing contrast of fact versus fiction about the SNAP program and who the people in the program are. At present, members of Congress are debating cutting food stamps to balance the budget. Representative Paul Ryan, ( Republican of Wisconsin) is skeptical of people who “take” but do not “make” in our society in his support for cutting SNAP. As the chair of the Budget Committee, he carries huge weight and is joined by others who agree with him. Another representative reported seeing a man with a “crab legs in his shopping cart” using food stamps. His comment, “I can’t afford crab legs!” is the kind of single negative anecdote that is at odds with the overwhelming statistics and information from research agencies.
The Health Impact Project in Washington D.C. reported on July 30, 2013 that cutting SNAP would not only have the direct effect of causing hunger, but would also increase poverty. This combination of lack of food and poverty would lead to increases in illness like heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure among adults. Among children, the study found the cuts would lead to higher rates of asthma and depression. It was estimated that diabetes alone could increase federal and state health care costs by nearly $15 billion over the next decade.
Aaron Wernham, the director of the Health Impact Project, warned, “The SNAP program has implications for health, and we want to make sure that health is part of the debate. There is a large body of public health research which shows how food insecurity affects health.” Although he too used the euphemistic term, his conclusion was clear and significant. Yet, Representative Stephen Fincher, (Republican of Tennessee) who supported cutting SNAP in 2013, cited a Biblical reference in the food stamp debate in the House, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” One wonders if he was referring to the children, the elderly or the disabled?
Nearly 47 million people currently receive food stamp benefits, costing about $80 billion a year. “These are the poorest of the poor,” said Kevin Concannon, the undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the Agriculture Department. “In many cases, these are people who are working who cannot make ends meet.” Aaron Wernham explained, “It’s a trade -off between paying for rent, medicine or food. Policy makers need to understand what the health impacts are going to be if they make the kinds of changes they are considering to the SNAP program.”
The food stamp program has been attacked openly by conservatives in Congress as it has grown over the past decade. Many Republicans claim that fraud is rampant in the program with benefits going to ineligible people. Yet, the Agriculture Department is on record saying fraud rates are higher in the crop insurance farm subsidies program than in the food stamp program. The Department of Agriculture uses an l8 item survey to determine ‘food insecurity‘. Questions are asked as whether they or any of their children have skipped eating for an entire day because of lack of money for food. The survey ranks the severity of their condition by the number of answers that indicate problems. About a third of households skipped meals and reduced portions during the past year. The other two thirds buy cheaper foods such as starches and rely heavily on food stamps, food pantries and soup kitchens. Parent reported that their children’s food needs came first.
The House of Representatives in 2013 proposed “work requirements” mandating able-bodied childless adults who did not find at least part- time employment would lose their food stamps after 90 days, even if local unemployment rates were very high. This punitive measure did not provide job training funds and ignored the fact that most food stamp recipients are children, the disabled, the elderly and lowest-income working parents. Eric Cantor, then the Majority Leader in the House had a plan that would encourage state governments to cut benefits back further so they could use dollars for various other programs.
Maura Daly, a Feeding America spokeswoman addressed the issue, “People have a lot of misimpressions about hunger in America. People think it is associated with homelessness, when in fact, it is working- poor families, it’s kids, it’s the elderly and disabled.” She also stressed that hunger is invisible particularly in rural areas. Representative Fincher, elected in 2010 on the Tea Party wave, had a very different view during the food stamp debate, “The role of citizens, of Christianity, of humanity is to take care of each other, not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country. We have to remember there is not a big printing press in Washington that continually prints money over and over.” Robert Rector, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, advocated mandatory drug testing as well as work requirements for food stamp recipients.
When debate opens in the new Congress, we need to pay close attention to the House Agriculture Committee hearings. Chairman Frank Lucas (Republican of Oklahoma), raised concerns of food stamp supporters when he was quoted as saying, “I will not start with my bias” at future hearings on SNAP.