Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
The Farm Bill is a comprehensive piece of legislation that guides and authorizes funding for federal farm and food policies, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps. Every five years, Congress renews the Farm Bill. The last time the bill was renewed was in 2008, and this year it is up for reauthorization.
Last month versions of the bill emerged from the Agricultural Committees of the two houses of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both versions make devastating cuts to SNAP, demonstrating a degree of cruelty that is both shocking and shameful on the part of those who are supposed to represent us in crafting public policy. On May 14th, by a vote of 15 to 5, the Senate’s Agricultural Committee passed its version of the bill (S 954) with cuts to SNAP of $4 billion over the next ten years. Two days later, on May 16th, the House of Representatives proved even more callous with a version of the bill (HR 1947) that would cut SNAP by $20.5 billion over ten years. If a bill were to be passed in line with either version, it would in effect be pulling plates of food off the tables of hungry kids. And this from the same Congress that obstinately insists on preserving tax cuts for multi-millionaires and grants subsidies to giant agricultural corporations.
For decades SNAP has served as America’s first line of defense against hunger. It currently provides food aid for 47 million low-income participants every month. In 2011 SNAP lifted almost 4 million Americans above the poverty line, including 1.7 million children and 280,000 seniors. Cutting the program would endanger millions of our fellow countrymen, especially the unemployed, those with low-paying jobs, poor children, and people with disabilities.
Critics might regard SNAP as a lavish handout that our nation can ill afford, but quite apart from its role as a compassionate intervention, SNAP is a profitable investment, in the long run bringing desirable returns. Not only does the program alleviate poverty and hunger, but it serves as a robust antidote to future poverty and the strains a destitute population inevitably puts on the base of taxpayers. By ensuring that children can eat , SNAP reduces childhood illnesses and thereby lowers national health costs. Since a hungry child can’t concentrate , SNAP is a boon to education. It improves the ability of children to learn in school and thereby boosts their chances of finding employment later in life. It thus helps people attain financial self-sufficiency.
To slash SNAP, in deference to a futile, fictitious, and discredited ideology of austerity, is to slam shut the door to a brighter future against millions of our fellow countrymen. It means keeping them trapped in desperate poverty and condemning them to a life of misery. Surely, we can do better than this. Surely, we are better than this. As a people we must join hands with our fellow countrymen to protect them from the dark shadow of hunger. And this means we must stand together in opposing heartless cuts to the food stamps program.
Already the call of conscience has been sounding. Hardly had the bill been approved by the House Agriculture Committee last month than leading American hunger-relief charities and religious advocates expressed outrage. David Beckmann, president of the Christian advocacy organization Bread for the World, said: “A vote for this level of cuts is shameless. Millions of people will lose food assistance and hundreds of thousands of households will see their benefits cut dramatically at a time when families across the country are struggling with long-term unemployment or reduced wages. Hungry and poor people do not deserve to bear the brunt of our deficit-reduction efforts.” Father Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA, wrote: “We as a society have a special obligation to consider first the needs of the poor, even as we act through government. The proposed cuts to this vital program put a disproportionate burden on the very people our Catholic tradition teaches us to elevate in our public consciousness.”
As Buddhists, it’s our responsibility too to add our voices to those of other religious traditions who are speaking up on behalf of the poor. The Buddha himself said that there is no illness equal to hunger. The “divine qualities” of loving-kindness and compassion should inspire us to act like divinities, which entails rescuing people from the severe, debilitating, and degrading suffering to which they would be exposed by cuts to the SNAP program that serves as their lifeline. We must spare them the humiliation of enduring constant hunger themselves and of helplessly witnessing those they love, especially their own children, go to bed hungry at night and leave for school with empty stomachs the next morning.
Though the bills in Congress have passed through committee, they have not yet come up on the floor for a vote, and this is where there is still time for us to make our voices heard. We must let our representatives know that we’re ready to protect everyone in our land from the misery that their reckless policies would impose. We must show that our sense of human solidarity can prevail over the mischief of political manipulation.
To take action against the Senate version, go to the website of the Public Health Institute, which provides talking points and instructions for contacting your senator. For guidelines in contacting your representative in the House, go to the website of FRAC (Food Research and Action Center) and follow the suggestions given there. But don’t procrastinate! Time is quickly running out so we have to exert pressure now.
It is clear that governments struggle to provide whatever people need all over the country. As a Buddhist interested in relief I suggest we take steps to eliminate the causes that make people poorer and poorer. If possible, make people understand the current problems of human society and help them learn to be simple and humble. This, I think, would help a lot to reduce the poverty figures. In my opinion this kind of program should be introduced to high schools to rescue children from the timely, crazy trends.