With the federal budget battle in full swing, Congress, media pundits and most of the general public have their attention riveted on proposed changes to Medicare and Social Security. But Social Security — dubbed the “third rail” of politics — is likely to remain intact, even in today’s hyper-partisan political climate.
Hiding in the darkness of the pages of the House of Representatives’ proposed 2012 budget is more bad news for our nation’s middle class and poor — a stripping away of federal funding for our safety net food programs. In a cruel twist, at the very same time that the budget and the economy create more jobless Americans, the help we as a nation extend to the jobless and their children is in danger of being slashed.
Congress is poised to consider major cuts in the federal budget that could forever change the landscape of America. Flying under the radar of some very public proposals is a recommendation by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to cut billions of dollars from America’s food stamp program, known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). These proposed cuts — 20 percent, in fact, amounting to $127 billion through the year 2021 — would dismantle SNAP’s essential structure and impose astonishing limitations on those who receive such help: Recipients must either be working or be enrolled in a job training program, and there would be time limits on how long one could receive assistance.
According to an April 11, 2011, report issued by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, implementation of the proposed Ryan budget plan would result in dropping more than 8 million of the 44 million Americans currently enrolled in SNAP from the program. Most of these families, according to the center, are those with children, seniors or people with disabilities, and 93 percent of these households are living below the federal poverty line — $22,350 for a family of four.
With more and more Americans forced to enroll in the program — a nearly 12.1 percent increase from January 2010 to January 2011 alone — it’s absolutely clear that the food stamp program has prevented massive hunger in America. With the proposed changes in the Ryan budget plan, the iconic images of the Great Depression — families moving from place to place seeking work, food and shelter; hundreds of unemployed workers in lines at soup kitchens and desperate mothers begging on street corners — would no longer be the stuff of history. Those pictures would depict our lives, ourselves, today.
Who are the millions who rely on food stamps? They are your friends, your neighbors and your family. They are seniors who found themselves eating cat food because canned tuna was too expensive for them on their fixed incomes. They are formerly middle class — even upper-middle class — parents who lost jobs in this economy and cannot feed their families without the additional support of food stamps.
The America we built after the end of the Great Depression was an America that promised that we — all of us — would ensure that none of us would endure that depth and breadth of hardship again. That time gave birth to the great safety net programs we now take for granted to be there when our country faces a crisis such as the economic downturn we have been experiencing for the past several years.
Cutting the SNAP program would be devastating. Eliminating people unable to find work but still needing to feed their families not only adds insult to injury but also is a “Catch-22” from which these people cannot escape. People turn to food stamps when they lose their jobs — if they could secure employment or replace that lost income, there would be no need for them to apply for SNAP in the first place. The illogic of the work requirement would be laughable if it were not so tragic.
America in 2011 is a place where children are tormented by thoughts that they have driven their families to apply for federal help because they need clothes for school; fathers who once supported their families with ease now find themselves standing on a corner with a cardboard sign asking for work; mothers go without dinner so there will be enough food for their children to have breakfast.
This is not the America we promised ourselves. It is, however, the America in which we are living. Far too many of us are simply unaware of who is hungry and why. If these latest budget proposals are realized, far more of us will be aware of the worst, as we drive by scenes of people waiting for food. Some of us will even be in those very lines, watching as others drive by.
We cannot, and must not, turn a blind eye to what is happening in front of us. Yes, the pundits are right — most Americans will not allow those programs that affect them to be gutted. But we must show both pundits and the rest of America that merely seeking to protect Medicare and Social Security isn’t enough. We know that the challenges to SNAP are challenges to our very survival, and we will not allow our families, our friends and our neighbors to go hungry in America.
Abby J. Leibman is the president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.