Stealing Bread from a Poor Man’s Lunchbox

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

A week ago, the House Agricultural Committee drafted a version of a farm bill that’s tantamount to stealing bread from a poor man’s lunchbox. Largely the work of Tea Party conservatives, the bill is framed on the premise that the most urgent task facing this nation is to reduce the budget deficit. To accomplish this, the bill would lower farm expenditures by $35 billion over the next decade, slashing $16 billion off the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps. In effect this means that the bill gains 46% of its savings—almost half—by depriving the poor of the federal help they need to ensure their lunchboxes aren’t empty.

If the House Committee’s version of the bill prevails, up to three million people would lose their SNAP benefits. Nearly 300,000 children would also be ineligible for the free lunch program, which in many cases provides their only substantial meal of the day. These cuts would have a painful impact on working class families, an impact that hits especially hard when  jobs are scarce, wages are low, and the long drought is driving up food prices.

Yet this is not a case where everyone bears their share of the burden equally. At the same time that it slashes aid to people struggling to get by, the House bill continues to offer generous subsidies to Big Agriculture, bolstering corn, wheat, and soybeans. These imbalances illustrate once again that there are pernicious inequities in our political system that must be corrected to protect the poor from the avarice of the rich.

The Senate’s version of the farm bill is not as draconian as the one the House Committee has proposed. It would reduce farm expenditures by $23 billion over the coming decade and cut SNAP by $4.5 billion, a quarter of the amount demanded by the House Committee’s version. The senators who supported this bill said it mainly targets loopholes in the current SNAP program, but this claim has been challenged by others who say its impact on the poor will still be painful.

Economists assert that SNAP does not bleed the economy in the way its opponents claim. To the contrary, several independent studies have shown that the program, far from punching a hole in the economy, actually promotes economic revitalization. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the George W. Bush Administration found that every $1 in food stamp benefits generates $1.84 of GDP. An independent study by Moody’s concluded that “expanding food stamps is the most effective way to prime the economy’s pump.”

But economic consequences are by no means the only factor to be taken into account when assessing the bill. It’s been said that a budget is a moral document, and this holds true as well of a farm bill. Food stamps benefit those who need them most. The radical Right may depict SNAP beneficiaries as freeloaders too lazy to work for their keep, but as the New York Times editorial points out, “This is a canard—the Congressional Budget Office has found that nearly 99 percent of food stamp participants live in poverty.”

And not simply in poverty. A revealing article in the USDA’s Amber Waves reports that 54% of those who receive food stamps actually live below 50% of the poverty line, and 34% live between 50% and 100% of the line. In 2010, six million people—believe it or not, in the nation that claims to be the greatest land on earth—had no other source of income but food stamps. For such people food stamps are often essential to their survival, and cutbacks in this program can be for them quite literally a matter of life and death.

While reducing profligacy in a budget is surely necessary, Congress must exercise utmost care in determining how the budget is to be balanced and who will bear the burden of lower expenditures. Conservatives complain that our nation’s morals are in decline. But what is the true measure of moral failure: letting women choose whether or not to have an abortion and granting same-sex couples the right to marry, or withdrawing food assistance from the most vulnerable in our midst? Surely our primary moral obligation is to look after our less fortunate brothers and sisters, thus ensuring that all who dwell among us can eat. Any bill that fails to do this, especially when food is available, can only be declared immoral.

Pressure is mounting on the House of Representatives to vote on a farm bill before Congress heads home for the August recess. Remember that the members of the House are, as their name indicates, our representatives. They should respond to our demands, and often, despite the pressures of ideology and the corrupting influence of lobbyists, they will in fact represent our wishes. Thus, as Buddhists, and even more so simply as moral beings, we should stand up for those at risk of hunger and malnutrition. Bear in mind that, according to Amber Waves, “SNAP was particularly successful in lessening poverty among children–a group with significantly higher rates of poverty than the overall population.” If we’re to protect our nation’s children, we shouldn’t let radical demagogues cut into their lifeline of food.

You can convey your feelings to your representatives and ask them to support a farm policy that safeguards the lunchboxes of the poor. The website Contacting the Congress will instruct you how to find and contact your representative. Then it’s up to you to initiate contact. Tell your rep, loud and clear,  “Do not slash funding for the food stamps program.”

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