As the leaders of faith communities, we understand the heartbreak of a mother or father who cannot afford enough food to feed her or his children. We see and share in it almost daily in our houses of worship across the country. And it is precisely because the faith community is so involved in alleviating hunger that we support SNAP and other government solutions that reduce need and protect vulnerable people. Indeed, our faith traditions require a commitment, not only to personal charity, but also to systemic and communal justice.
On November 1, 48 million Americans lost either all or some of the federal food assistance provided to them by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps and now called SNAP. It is not as if those benefits were generous. The average amount per person has been $133.40 per month, $30.78 per week, or $4.45 per day, boosted to that level in 2009 by extra funding provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, aka the stimulus bill. That “boost” ended November 1 and benefits were lowered by an average of $11 per person per month, to a per meal allowance of $1.36. We challenge anyone reading this to try to exist on a meal allowance of a little over one dollar per meal.
It’s not that the need has disappeared. An estimated 22 million people are unemployed or underemployed - a figure that doesn’t count those who have given up looking. Fifteen percent of Americans are officially poor. Similarly the government estimates that 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2012, meaning they “lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” Income is still more than 8 percent below 2007 levels. And contrary to the image of SNAP recipients fostered by certain media outlets and politicians, recipients today are still in need even though they are more likely to have finished high school and attended college, more likely to qualify for benefits while they are working, and less likely to be receiving cash benefits from other government sources.
Given these realities, it is morally incomprehensible that so many in Congress want to shrink benefits even more. Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate passed an agriculture bill that would cut benefits by $4 billion over the next 10 years, while the House-passed bill would impose a draconian $40 billion in cuts – both on top of the reduced funding already in effect. The House vote this summer marks the worst breech in the bipartisan congressional coalition that has supported food programs since the inception of the modern program in 1968.
Federal food assistance has its roots in an experimental program piloted during the Great Depression in 1939. Despite ups and downs over the ensuing years, a bipartisan, rural-urban coalition grew in support of federal food assistance to individuals and families in need. While often under attack by some conservatives who periodically succeeded in cutting it back, farm belt legislators of both parties and all ideological stripes worked to support it. In 2003, President George W. Bush signed a significant expansion of SNAP that restored the eligibility of many immigrants, raised benefits, and gave bonuses to states that enrolled the most people.
Given the demonstrated need in the aftermath of the Great Recession, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the bill gutting current benefits passed by a majority in the House is ideologically motivated rather than fact-based. It certainly pays no attention to the documented need across the country. Indeed by that measure, both the House and Senate bills fall short. There’s no budgetary reason for drastically cutting SNAP. The number of people enrolled in the program is expected to decline to the 1995 levels reached during a decade of relative prosperity as recipients get jobs and no longer qualify.
Nevertheless, right now maintaining SNAP is critical to keeping vulnerable children, families, and single adults from food insecurity and even hunger. One-fifth of the country has been getting food aid during the recession due to high unemployment rates. The census bureau estimates that SNAP lifted 4 million people out of poverty and reduced poverty for tens of million more.
Our faith traditions instruct us to help those who are less fortunate. And while religious institutions operate soup kitchens and food pantries along with their nonsectarian partners, they overwhelmingly report they cannot meet the demand for their services. In an interfaith statement issued in 2009 that has not lost its resonance, 16 major faith groups declared that while as communities of faith they have a long history of feeding the hungry through food pantries, soup kitchens, and community outreach programs, “we cannot match the role of government in assisting and supporting hungry people and addressing the root causes of hunger.”
Indeed it has been part of our civic culture since colonial times to help those in need among us with government assistance. Our commitment to our particular faith-based values propels us to vigorously oppose the dismantling of the nation’s core program to help feed the less fortunate among us. The course set for SNAP by the Senate and made much worse by the House of Representatives is heartless and must be reversed.
Nancy K. Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women, a grassroots organization inspired by Jewish values that strives to improve the quality of life for women, children, and families and to safeguard individual rights and freedoms.
The Rev. Gradye Parsons is the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s General Assembly.