Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Hungry households, shameful cuts


OUR OPINION: This is not the time to cut food stamp eligibility

Members of the U.S. House and Senate will begin meeting this week to reconcile disparate farm bills. The prospects are not pretty. Though the bills are similar in most respects, food stamps have become the focal point of a huge political dogfight that could sink the entire bill.

Formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, food stamps have been part of the farm bill for decades. Poor and low-income families across America rely on food stamp benefits to avoid going hungry.

Nonetheless, the House bill would cut $4 billion per year from the program and slice 10 percent of the beneficiaries out of the picture by tightening eligibility rules.

This is the wrong way to go about saving money and reforming the program, particularly with unemployment still high. These are tough times for the 3.6 million food-insecure residents in Florida. One in five of the state’s households struggles to buy sufficient food for the family.

To make matters worse, funding from the 2009 federal stimulus package that temporarily boosted food stamps has ended. Consequently, a family of four with the maximum benefit of $668 or so, will get some $36 less per month in food stamps. Further cuts will only hurt vulnerable families and increase hunger in many households. This would lead to worse health and educational outcomes, as well as higher health costs.

Florida already has six urban areas designated among the country’s top 25 for food hardship. Among those are the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach area. In Miami-Dade County, 587,000 people — about 21 percent of the population — already depend on food stamps. Altogether, the state receives nearly $6 billion in food stamp benefits.

Florida also is the home of U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, a Republican from the Panhandle, who was named to the conference committee that will reconcile House and Senate versions of the bills. Arguably the most determined advocate of reforming food stamps, he would impose requirements that, in effect, would pare the number of beneficiaries.

Thanks to him, the House bill would cut $39 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years and produce devastating consequences for the affected families — some of them unintended.

By reducing access to food stamps, for example, many families would be forced to eat cheaper, less nutritious and more fattening foods, contributing to the nation’s obesity epidemic.

The $80 billion-a-year food stamp program is part of the $500 billion, multi-year farm bill that sets policy for farm subsidies, food stamps, and other rural projects.

It’s a vital program, but unless lawmakers reach agreement by year’s end, dairy supports could expire, which would send the price of milk soaring for all consumers.

The sensible choice is the Senate approach, which would cut only about a tenth of the amount proposed by the House. South Florida lawmakers would do well to send a message to the conferees, especially Rep. Southerland: Do not gut the vital food stamp program.

It would be shameful for Congress to yank food stamps from vulnerable families during this weak economy. The food stamp program may need reform, but draconian cuts in eligibility would do more harm than good.

For a Congress woefully short on legislative accomplishments, this bill is a test of competence. Lawmakers, it’s past time to reach a compromise and actually pass a piece of major legislation.

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