The Common Good

What Kind of World Is This?

What kind of world is it where our elected leaders are always trying to take food away from the hungry? Only two months after a boost in SNAP benefits from the Recovery ACT expired, meaning that $5 billion less is available to help vulnerable people, SNAP is again on the chopping block as Congress negotiates a new Farm Bill.

What kind of a world is this?

It is a world I no longer recognize.

SNAP began in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act as part of his unconditional “War on Poverty.” In his remarks upon signing, Johnson said: “I believe the Food Stamp Act weds the best of the humanitarian instincts of the American people with the best of the free enterprise system. Instead of establishing a duplicate public system to distribute food surplus to the needy, this act permits us to use our highly efficient commercial food distribution system.”

Johnson continued: “It is one of many sensible and needed steps we have taken to apply the power of America's new abundance to the task of building a better life for every American.”

Imagine. Fifty years ago the Food Stamp Act was viewed not as charity, but rather as an ingenious utilization of American enterprise in order to help “build a better life for every American.”

And it is genius.

The way SNAP works, it’s not just a hand out. It helps people put food on their plates by providing financial assistant that quickly ends up back into the hands of store clerks to fuel local economies, boost job creation, and strengthen communities. SNAP lifts the economy by pouring money into local businesses every single day.

Now, consider this briefing on the program from the Center on Budget Policy Priorities:

  • 47 million Americans receive SNAP benefits every year. That’s 1 in 7 people sitting in our church pews, 1 in 7 people walking through the checkout line at the supermarket, and 1 in every 7 people we drive past on our local streets and highways.
  • About 72 percent of people who participate are part of families with children. Another quarter is part of households with seniors or people with disabilities — folks on fixed incomes.
  • To qualify to participate in SNAP, folks have to be truly poor. Their monthly net income (after housing costs and childcare services, for example) has to be at or below the poverty line, which is $1,628 per month for a family of three in fiscal year 2014. More than half of all SNAP benefits went to households with incomes less than half the poverty line (about $9,800 per year for a family of three).
  • The average SNAP participant receives about $4.45 per day (or $133 month). That benefit is expected to drop below $130 per month for the 2013 fiscal year because of the $5 billion dollar cut to the program in November.
  • Participants receive an EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card that is loaded with benefits toward the beginning of each month. Then, more than 80 percent of benefits are redeemed at local supermarkets and superstores and can’t be used to purchase hot foods or non-food household items.
  • And get this: SNAP is one of the most efficient programs in government. It costs about $82 billion to run, and 92 percent of that cost goes directly into benefits for program participants. In other words, nearly $75 billion goes directly back into local economies.

Genius.

And SNAP is not just about eating. It’s about nutrition. It’s about public health. A recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Pew Charitable Trust found that a cut of $2 billion in SNAP benefits in one year would result in an additional $15 billion in medical costs for diabetes over the next decade. And because we’re talking about poor people, we’re not talking about private costs. We’re talking about Medicaid and Medicare. We’re talking about public tax dollars being used inefficiently.

Not so smart.

What’s my point?

Ideology has run amok for long enough in the halls of Congress. It’s causing our legislators to make not-so-smart choices: Rather than close a single loophole on taxes for the super rich, they chose to let $5 billion in SNAP benefits expire in November. Rather than ending corporate welfare or closing tax loopholes for the rich, whenever certain members of Congress need to cut funding they always turn to SNAP. Why is that? It is one of the most efficient programs in government. It boosts the economy and creates jobs. It protects the most vulnerable people in our nation and it stood as a centerpiece of President Johnson’s War on Poverty.

The church must stand up and fight the forces of political ideology with the moral authority of biblical truth. Jesus told us in Matthew 25: 31-46 that what we do to the hungriest people, we do to him.

We must say “No more!” to America’s ideologically driven war on the poor. We must declare, “Not one more red cent should be snatched from SNAP.

Lisa Sharon Harper is senior director of mobilizing for Sojourners and the author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican…or Democrat .

Image: Child alone in a tunnel,  hikrcn / Shutterstock.com

This post was featured in Sojourners' monthly Faith in Action newsletter, which you can join by clicking here.

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