On Sept. 19, the House of Representatives passed a bill that slashes nearly $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). It’s difficult to capture just how monumental a shift this is in American policy. It certainly demonstrates extreme callousness to the enduring need felt by so many of our fellow Americans; it also makes evident its backers’ apparent disregard for the political will of their constituents; and it’s clear that it is grounded in the premise that loyalty to ideology should be held above all else. This mean-spirited and misguided bill undermines generations of bipartisan agreement to provide a federal nutrition safety net for vulnerable Americans.
For 40 years, SNAP has been included in the federal Farm Bill. SNAP’s inclusion represents a frank acknowledgment that too many Americans go hungry in spite of the huge bounty our farms produce. How many hungry Americans are there? Fifty million — that’s more than the entire population of Canada, and the highest percentage of Americans needing such assistance since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking in 1995.
The House failed to pass a comprehensive Farm Bill last June, primarily because of disagreement surrounding the nutrition title and that bill’s $20 billion cuts to SNAP. The response by House majority leaders in July was to turn their back on those in need and, for the first time ever, to strip SNAP entirely from the bill with a promise to address the nutrition title separately.
Which brings us to last week’s disastrous vote approving a bill that slashes SNAP by 10 times as much as the bipartisan Farm Bill approved by the U.S. Senate. As both chambers prepare to go to conference to try to negotiate a mutually agreeable solution that can be sent for the president’s signature, they must understand what’s at stake. This is not a math problem to be resolved by making the numbers work, nor is it a political science exercise designed to test the political acumen of party extremists who attempt to manipulate the rules to get a desired result, regardless of the very real consequences.
What hangs in the balance are the lives of vulnerable Americans, including a significant number of our nation’s seniors, innocent victims of the proposed cuts who stand to lose SNAP benefits altogether or endure painful reductions. These are real people, not statistics, not caricatures. They are our neighbors, our friends, even our family members.
Nearly 4 million seniors 60 years or older are enrolled in SNAP, which helps them to avoid having to choose between paying for food, medicine or rent. Yet the proposals that will be considered by the Conference Committee will eliminate provisions that streamline access to SNAP, cutting 1.8 million Americans with modest assets but limited fixed incomes — many of them seniors — from the program. SNAP means the difference between nutritious food and literally having to eat cat food, as we’ve learned from our New Face of Hunger initiative.
Our faith, like so many other faith traditions, teaches that the community has an obligation to sustain its most vulnerable. SNAP is the epitome of this fundamental idea, successfully realized on a larger scale. SNAP represents our collective commitment, as a national community, that when times are tough, we will stand together and help families get back on their feet.
Now is the time to support smart policies aimed at strengthening our nation’s recovery, not taking food out of the mouths of hungry people. We can rebuild our economy, but not if our fellow Americans cannot meet their most basic need for nutritious food.
Seventy years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his historic “Four Freedoms” address to Congress and asserted that Americans had a right to “freedom from want.” He understood that a lack of access to basic nutrition undermines a person’s ability to enjoy other fundamental rights.
It’s a scandal that our lawmakers have done so little since then to make good on that promise of “freedom from want.”
No country is better equipped to guarantee its citizens a right to food than the United States. What’s needed now is not the means but the political will to ensure that all Americans have enough to eat. Unfortunately, the uncertain fate of food stamps on Capitol Hill casts grave doubt on whether our leaders possess that will.
And so it comes to us to raise our voices to those appointed to the Farm Bill Conference Committee and to congressional leadership. Tell them that we expect better, that Congress is failing to live up to our collective responsibility to help the most vulnerable, that our country is missing the mark in protecting the right of our citizens to live free from want.
Abby J. Leibman is the president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national nonprofit organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel.