As the country moves into the holiday season, members of the House and Senate have their eyes on reaching agreement on a farm bill. The current legislation expires at the end of the year. So there is some pressure on lawmakers concerning a measure that ordinarily has won swift approval. Part of the struggle in finding compromise has been the jarringly different approaches to food assistance, or food stamps, both chambers callous, the House egregiously so.
The Senate version calls for reducing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by $4 billion during the next decade. That has the appearance of a relatively small sum in view of the $82.5 billion spent on food assistance last year. Yet this program serves those in need, or below 130 percent of the poverty level, $30,624 for a family of four.
More, contrary to the easy criticism, spending on food assistance is not out of control. The rapid increase has reflected the harsh recession and weak recovery, the number of eligible households climbing from 54 million in 2007 to 65 million in 2012. Consider, too, that spending on food assistance has begun to decline as a share of the overall economy. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities projects that it will drop further, returning to its 1995 levels by 2019.
So, the program has performed as designed, providing a necessary cushion for those knocked on their heels during tough times.
That makes the House version all the more wrongheaded, slashing roughly $40 billion in food assistance during the next decade. The Congressional Budget Office calculates that 3.8 million people would lose food assistance next year, with 210,000 schoolchildren losing access to free meals at school. Governors no longer would have waivers available to continue assistance in areas of prolonged economic distress. Another provision would apply additional work requirements even in an economy in which jobs are scarce.
The food stamp program has been a success story, all but ending extreme hunger in this country, lifting 5 million people out of poverty in 2012, according to the census. It has a minimal fraud rate of 1.3 percent. It boosts local economies, money in pockets for people to spend.
Worth emphasis is that the program already has been cut, a temporary increase included in the stimulus package expiring at the start of this month. That translates into a loss of $36 per month for a family of four. The point rightly has been made about getting the country’s fiscal house in order for the long term. That can, and should, be done without burdening the needy.