The Common Good

Casting the First Stone in the Senate

The Farm Bill might not sound like the most exciting piece of legislation ever to come out of Congress, but it has huge implications for nutrition in the United States. Among other things, the Farm Bill determines support to small farms, promoting farmers’ markets, and, oh yeah, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), what we used to call food stamps.

SNAP is one of the most effective anti-poverty programs, set to expand with increased need and decrease when people no longer need help. Most benefits are modest, and the majority of recipients who are able to work do. In fact, SNAP is effective because it not only helps people get the food they need, but its benefits encourage them to find work. 

Unfortunately, it seems like both houses in Congress are set on changing the SNAP program for the worse. Putting aside the cuts the House has planned for nutrition assistance that would kick 2 million people off the program, the Senate recently accepted by unanimous consent a change to SNAP that flies in the face of the criminal justice system and will probably have racially discriminating effects.

Sen. David Vitter proposed an amendment that blocks any person who had ever been convicted of rape, murder, or child sexual abuse from receiving SNAP benefits for life. Under his logic, this means that murderers and rapists will not get SNAP benefits. But it completely ignores the fact that many people who commit violent crimes have gone on to serve jail time for their actions and have since reformed. The last time we checked, the punishment for committing a crime is jail, not hunger.

Worse, we have to remember that our court system has historically held strong racial biases, which continue to this day.

This is unfair. It is unfair to people who have been through the criminal justice system (whether their punishment was justified or not), and it is unfair to their families, who would receive lower benefits as well. In fact, the reality that ex-offenders often cannot find work and are ineligible for other benefits is a huge contributor to repeat offenses. By setting up our society to keep punishing people after they have already been to jail, we are simply making it harder for anyone to live a new life.

Our faith teaches us that we can be reconciled to those who have wronged us. We are told to love people in their current state, not analyze misdeeds they may have committed in the past. Endless punishment is contrary to our most basic values, as is the continuing saga of racial discrimination – especially in the justice system.

A crime committed at the age of 19 should not keep an elderly grandfather from having enough to eat. The Senate should reconsider this out-of-line amendment that twists our efforts to help into something darker. SNAP works, and we have an obligation to make sure that it works for everyone who needs it.  

Janelle Tupper is Campaigns Assistant for Sojourners. 

Image: The Senate, jordi espel / Shutterstock.com

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