The mere mention of food stamps on Capitol Hill conjures up long held political stereotypes of Republicans reaching for the budget ax while Democrats reach out their hands, both a gross mischaracterization and oversimplification of a complex problem.
But following the House Agriculture Committee’s late night vote approving a “new” farm bill with $20.5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, compared to $16 billion in last year’s bill, I’m left thinking of the unforgettable Reagan quip: “There you go again.”
Fifteen percent of all Americans are using food stamps today just to survive and for many, that’s not enough to keep their children from going hungry at night. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that food-stamp use rose 1.8 percent in in January from a year earlier, that’s 47.3 million, or nearly 1 in 7 Americans.
Nearly 45 years ago, I traveled the country with my friend and mentor the late Sen. George McGovern as he chaired the now dismantled Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, going to the South Bronx, East St. Louis, Chicago and many other places to bring national attention to the plight of the hungry. But the need to address hunger and food security in America is just as urgent now as it was then and the problem has grown in the fleeting nature of today’s national attention span.
We know that a hungry child in today’s classroom is likely to be an unemployed and undereducated adult. So if we are to reverse the trend, we need an honest discussion in Washington, free of political tactics and social judgments, on the cause and its vast consequences across all economic and social boundaries.
The number of Americans on food stamps has grown 44 percent since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, but an aggressive effort by the White House to build participation in the food stamp program should not be reason enough to dismiss the increase as an economic glitch of the Great Recession and one destined to be automatically resolved with the improving economy. Millions relied on the program well before Obama moved into the White House in 2008 and will surely still need the assistance when he leaves in 2017.
Many, if not most, of the 47.3 million Americans enrolled monthly in the SNAP program go to work every day, raise their kids and live productive lives and yet are still unable to scrape enough together to provide food for an entire month. When the average monthly benefit is only $133, or less than $4.50 a day, saying no to the dollar menu at McDonalds is nearly impossible.
So let’s reform our programs, while remembering that reform is not analogous to cut. Today’s renewed attention to the issue through headlines and documentaries should be an opportunity to look beyond SNAP and ask: Why do people need food stamps at all?
I suggest the answer lies in education and an investment in our people through classrooms from the grade school level to community colleges, rather than removing the one safety net that keeps many parents from falling into the terrifying torment of not knowing whether they will be able to feed their children or themselves.
Years of data combined with countless real life stories demonstrate that improving education and work skills will improve wages and ultimately reduce the number of those needing food stamps. But we must change how we look at academics by recognizing college isn’t for everyone and reverse the long held reputation of vocational classes as the unwanted stepchildren of education. I was surprised to learn that the Department of Education has found that more than 90 percent of students who concentrate in career-oriented courses in high school graduate within four to five years, compared to 75 percent of those with a broader academic syllabus.
Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce also found that 27 percent of Americans who earn a vocational license or certificate after high school actually earn more than the average for those with a bachelor’s degree. This matters because the unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma hovered around 8 percent in 1998 and nearly doubled by 2004, to 16 percent with average incomes declining at relatively the same pace.
It’s time to replace campaign-styled rhetoric from progressives and conservatives alike with thoughtful leadership like that of Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow who recognizes food stamps as “disaster aid for families” and the committee’s ranking member Thad Cochran who makes no apologies for supporting the SNAP program.
The purpose of food stamps remains as true today as when the program started, acting as an economic band-aid to help the injury of a lost job or other traumatic financial life event. So it is critical SNAP remains fully operational while Washington looks to heal the greater problem through sensible educational opportunities that help improve skills in the growing number of employed Americans.
Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty will never be won, but just because someone is poor, does not mean they should ever go hungry. Or as McGovern would say, “A country that is powerful enough to rocket men to the moon should be able to feed its own hungry people.”
Gerald S.J. Cassidy is founder and chief executive officer of Cassidy & Associates in Washington, D.C.