For nearly 48 million Americans who depend on help provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to buy groceries each month, the news out of Washington yesterday will likely put them on edge. The GOP-led House passed a food assistance bill that, if it becomes law, will cut the benefits of nearly four million people next year.
It couldn't happen at a worse time.
Food insecurity is approaching epidemic levels, affecting nearly one in seven Americans. And a stubbornly high unemployment rate, which remains at 7.3 percent nationally, paralyzes many of our neighbors. However, the majority of members of the United States House of Representatives narrowly believe even more struggling Americans should be on their own with regards to their nutrition. On Thursday, a narrow majority of members of Congress approved cuts to the nutrition assistance program that will total nearly $40 billion over the next 10 years—five percent of the decade budget for a program that costs $80 billion a year to administer.
"It is egregious that the House voted for the passage of the bill, as a vote in favor of this bill is a vote in favor of deep SNAP cuts," Rev. David Beckmann, president of hunger-relief advocacy group Bread for the World, said in a statement. "This type of proposal specifically picks on the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society. As a country that prides itself on a strong moral grounding, this bill is unacceptable."
The bill, which passed 217-210 with no support from Democrats, would also require childless adults between 18 and 50 to find a job or to enroll in a work-training program in order to receive benefits.
A number of current, moderate Republicans joined most Democrats in voting no, and former GOP politicans are voicing their dissent too. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KA) and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), in a joint op-ed in Monday's Los Angeles Times, begged House members not to "play politics with hunger" by gutting SNAP. But that's exactly what happened Thursday.
What happens next? The final House bill must now be reconciled with the Senate version—which included a $4.1 billion cut to SNAP—in a conference committee before it is passed and sent to the President for his signature. In June, before SNAP was separated from the five-year Farm Bill, the President promised to veto any bill that sliced into the "cornerstone of our nation's food assistance safety net." With the agriculture portion of the bill already passed without the cuts to the subsidy programs Obama called for at the time, it's unclear whether or not the President will sign the "Nutrition Reform" bill. But Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) have both gone on the record to say the cuts won't be passed into law.
Republicans cite the cost of the ever-expanding program—as well as what they perceive to be widespread fraud—to justify their support of such deep cuts. But fraud is rare among SNAP recipients, and many politicians and economists alike have shown that equally significant savings could have come from cutting other areas of the Farm Bill—like farm subsidies. Still, Frank Lucas (R-OK), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said the bill that passed Thursday, "makes common-sense reforms to the [food assistance program] that encourages and enables work participation, closes program loopholes, and eliminates waste, fraud and abuse while saving the American taxpayer nearly $40 billion."
Lucas went on to call the program important for Americans who are struggling financially, but radical reforms were needed to get it working more efficiently. Beckmann of Bread for the World vehemently disagrees with the bill Lucas and his colleagues produced, however, and promises to keep fighting.
"We must continue to hold our leaders accountable and remind them that balancing the budget on poor and hungry people is distasteful and careless," he said. "Job creation and food security will ensure a stable economy. We pray for the millions of families and children that no longer know where their next meal will come from."