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Shanshan Chen: Deep cuts to SNAP are unconscionable

Editor’s note: The following columns were written for the course Nutrition and Food Policy taught by Lorraine Cordeiro at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Early this year, the House Agriculture Committee proposed a draft of 2012 farm bill: the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act. This bill proposed cutting spending for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) by $16 billion over the next 10 years, to reduce the nation’s deficit and improve “program integrity and accountability.”

If the House gets its way, the proposed deep cut ($4.5 billion has been approved by the Senate already) to this important national anti-hunger program can directly result in two to three million Americans losing their food assistance entirely, and 300,000 children eliminated from the free school meal program.

As an essential lifeline for millions of struggling Americans, SNAP targets the most vulnerable. Seventy-six percent of SNAP households include a child, a senior or a disabled person and these families receive roughly 84 percent of all SNAP benefits. The question is, are the benefits exceeding what these people really need?

There would be no doubt or hesitation to cut the budget if the answer was a resounding yes — because nobody wants to see waste and abuse. However, according to the Congressional Budget Office, an average adult SNAP beneficiary receives about $31.50 per week, which means less than $5 a day to cover three meals.

The proposed cuts would be catastrophic because the approved $4.5 billion reduction will directly cause 500,000 households to see their benefits cut by an average of $90 per month. The vast majority of SNAP recipients have extremely low incomes, with 93 percent of participating households below the poverty line. Of those households, 20 percent have no income at all. What will the affected households do to make up for this loss in food assistance?

Does the U.S. government have to trade in safety net programs to balance the budget?

I recall that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

Promoting a hunger-free society should be a high-priority national goal. With high levels of poverty and unemployment in communities across the nation, this is simply not the time to cut food assistance programs.

The food insecure and poverty-stricken members of our society do not want to be dependent on government assistance forever, especially for something as basic as food. To some extent, everybody has ups and downs in life, and we want to make sure that the safety net is always there to support needy individuals and families to make it through economic difficulties.

Children comprise over half of the SNAP participants. The proposed cuts would leave millions of them ineligible for free or reduced-price school meals, which means that they might lose their only access to a sufficient meal each day. Think about this and the impact on the poorest and most vulnerable. We simply just can’t let this happen.

Shanshan Chen is a doctoral candidate in nutrition at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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