Would you believe that the nation’s cabinet has approved an executive order defining food as a legal right? No, not our nation.
India has taken this bold step. Malnourishment afflicts 42 percent of Indian children, and part of their government’s response to this entrenched problem is defining efforts to end hunger as more than a welfare challenge.
Here in the United States, we’ve got a hunger problem too. Yes, it’s not on India’s scale, but nearly 50 million Americans — 16 percent of us — live in what experts call “food-insecure” households. The number of hungry Americans has held steady since 2008, when the Great Recession began.
UNICEF rates child welfare among 29 of the world’s richest countries. We’re in 26th place — ahead of Romania, yet behind Greece, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Clearly, we should do more to help the most vulnerable among us, right? Well, Congress doesn’t agree. So now the world’s largest economy will let more people go hungry while our lawmakers squabble over how deeply to cut food stamp spending.
Food stamp benefits for poor families have already taken a hit. Even though hunger never declined from its peak during our alleged economic recovery, a small benefit increase in the 2009 stimulus package expired on Halloween. The end of this $5 billion safety net extension will trim $36 per month for a family of four enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food stamp program, known as SNAP .
The Republican argument for cutting food stamps is based on the program’s growth. The government spent around $80 billion on SNAP benefits in the past year, more than twice levels seen before the Great Recession. That increase followed the boost in the value of the food stamps people could qualify for and the expansion of the number of people poor enough to qualify.
Simply put, we’re spending more on food stamps because widespread economic problems increased the number of empty larders in America. It’s possible that higher benefits compelled more people to apply, but that’s beside the point.
Had the economic recovery been widespread, we might be spending less on SNAP. Instead, the richest 1 percent inhaled all economic growth and then some. In 2010 and 2011, the 1 percent snatched 121 percent of the recovery’s bounty. This mind-boggling statistic means that the bottom 99 percent experienced a net decline in income.
Demand for food stamps won’t retreat until the economic recovery reaches the rest of us. And food stamps are a powerful economic stimulus because every dollar in increased SNAP benefits generates about $1.70 in economic activity.
So what’s Congress going to do? Pare back benefits even more. The House has passed two different versions of a Farm Bill, the SNAP program’s legislative home. One left food stamps out altogether and the other slashed SNAP spending by $4 billion each year.
The Senate’s version would cut SNAP outlays by $400 million per year. Either of these reductions would come on top of the $5 billion decline in support for this meager lifeline that helps one in seven Americans with less than $1.50 for every meal.
Can the private sector do something? Well, sure.
Workers employed by many of our largest corporations, such as Walmart and McDonald’s, are compensated so badly that millions of them qualify for government anti-poverty programs. If they’d just pay a living wage, fewer Americans would turn to stamps, Medicaid, and other safety-net options.
If seeing your tax dollars subsidize giant corporations that refuse to pay their own workers enough to get food on the table strikes you as unfair, this business trend may cheer you up: Companies selling their wares to the poor are lowering their sales forecasts due to the SNAP cuts. Including Walmart.
Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.