A well-known D.C. maxim advises that any economic stimulus must be timely, targeted, and temporary. So as legislators begin drafting the 2012 Farm Bill, why are some proposing to cut a program that responds in direct relation to need, supports recipients for an average of just nine months, boasts an extremely low payment error rate and in the process generates $1.79 for every $1 spent?
In the case of SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps – it is because we have let a politically devised gross mischaracterization define how most people understand the program.
This partisan rhetoric has only intensified lately because of the upcoming presidential election. In the midst of all the speechmaking, Congress seems primed to cut SNAP, despite the almost certain devastating impact that will have on 50 million of our fellow Americans.
As leaders of national advocacy organizations, we cannot “stand idly by” while the health and well-being of one of every six American men, women and children are threatened. As leaders of Jewish advocacy organizations, we are further compelled to act by the fact that we just celebrated Passover, Pesach, a festival that almost from its start carries with it the invitation, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
If we do nothing to confront the prevailing rhetoric or challenge cuts to SNAP in the next Farm Bill, not only will we abandon our principles, but we also will dishonor the sincerity of our very own Pesach invitation.
Every five years, the Farm Bill reauthorization process gives us a chance to re-examine our national priorities with regard to food. The bill has far-reaching impact, containing an array of titles that cover the whole process, from seed to table. Simply, the bill brings the bounty of our country’s farms to the tables of rich and poor. One of the primary ways it reaches the latter is through SNAP, which provides food assistance to those who might otherwise not have enough resources to eat. This vital program accomplishes its function with great success.
SNAP is specifically designed to be responsive to economic conditions – to expand when the U.S. economy is weak and unemployment is high, and to contract when the economy improves and more people are back to work. What could be timelier than providing help only when people need it?
Moreover, this help is provided with great efficiency. Exemplary among government programs, SNAP has a nearly unparalleled record of program integrity and a historically low improper payment rate of just 3.8 percent. This means that more than 96 percent of SNAP benefits are accurately and appropriately delivered to those who are eligible to receive them.
For this highly targeted group of people, SNAP is nothing short of a lifesaver that spares them from having to choose between food and other necessities such as rent, utilities, and health care.
A program, then, that saves lives so effectively deserves to have its story told with facts, not distorted narrative. Contrary to what some would have you believe, for the vast majority of the 46 million Americans currently on SNAP (over half of whom are children or seniors), the program serves not as a permanent handout from the government but a temporary bridge to get past hard times. On average, SNAP recipients transition off the program in nine months – receiving benefits just long enough to find a new job or get back on their feet.
The best way to reduce reliance on SNAP, however, is to build a stronger economy. Strengthening SNAP is one of the surest ways that Congress can contribute to that. The money these families spend on food quickly goes directly into their local economy, helping to support the community, and stave off further unemployment.
In addition, according to a recent census report, in 2010 SNAP helped lift 3.9 million people out of poverty. Instead of feeding a cycle of poverty, SNAP helps prevent people from being enslaved by one.
During Pesach, we reminded ourselves that we once were slaves but now we are free. Like the liberty our ancestors won, millions fewer Americans feel the oppression of hunger because of SNAP. This accomplishment, however, worthy of celebration as it is, is not enough. Far too many Americans still struggle with hunger, and even more will do so if SNAP funding is cut. And so we must continue to be vigilant.
For the fourth year, our organizations sponsored more than 50 Hunger Seders in communities across the country that, we hope, increased awareness about hunger and urged on participants to take action. On March 29, we hosted the National Hunger Seder at the Capitol that united members of Congress, administration officials, and national anti-hunger advocates in our commitment to freedom from hunger for all Americans.
If the Farm Bill sets the priorities for our national harvest, then from our perspective SNAP gives us a legislative means of realizing our biblical commandment to leave the “gleanings of your harvest” for “the poor and the stranger” (Lev. 23:22). By strengthening SNAP, we help fulfill that sacred mandate with a response that is timely, targeted, and temporary. In ensuring freedom from hunger, we also honor the just-ended Passover festival and the seven-week march to Sinai now underway, that culminates on Shavuot and the giving of the Torah, which makes caring for the underprivileged an obligation.