Playing Hunger Games with Food Stamps

When the House voted yesterday to cut $40 billion from the food-stamp program, they doubled the cuts the House had previously considered. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 3.8 million people will be taken off the program, primarily because the House is removing some of the flexibility states have to meet the needs of their communities. They are restoring strict federal rules to the program. That’s an odd move for a bunch of Republicans.

Most of the people who will be removed from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s (SNAP) rolls are adults in high unemployment areas who don’t have children and can’t find jobs, and families with gross incomes that are slightly higher than the poverty line, but whose disposable incomes fall below it. These changes were introduced a few years ago to meet a rising need. The poverty line is low, and doesn’t take into account how much families spend on the costs of necessities like housing and childcare. More than half of all food stamp recipients are working. More than 80 percent of families with children are. They just aren’t earning enough to feed their children.

When conservatives express concern over the rise in food stamp use under the Obama administration, they often ignore the fact that the rise coincides with the recession and jobless recovery that followed. There’s also very little fraud—the federal government carefully monitors this program. Critics always point to the 47 million Americans who rely on food stamps, up from about 20 million before the recession without acknowledging the more troubling fact underpinning the data—that 47 million Americans are hungry. Actually, more than that are probably hungry. Before the financial meltdown, food stamps reached about half of those eligible; after they reached about three-quarters of eligible households. It’s partly because the federal government gave states more flexibility to get food stamps to people they felt needed them, but mostly because people with low incomes had nowhere else to go for help in the downturn. Families typically wait until the last minute to get aid, no matter how poor they are.

If we are really concerned about the growth of the food-stamp program, there are other ways to tackle it without living millions of families without food. Improving the economy, as each cycle of Congress has promised to do, would be a start. Raising the minimum wage would do it too; all of the working parents on the program would make more. Without those changes, it seems conservatives in Congress aren’t concerned with the rising need for food stamps. They’re upset because more people are using them.

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