Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Hey Congress, hunger’s not a game

Congress should leave the “hunger games” to authors and screenwriters. But too many misguided and duplicitous lawmakers insist on playing with poor and working-poor Americans’ ability to feed their families. No one will win here, least of all the people — including 22 million children nationwide — for whom hunger is a real and daily threat.

House and Senate negotiators must finalize the components of a new farm bill during the next two weeks if it is to have any chance of passing by Jan. 1, when the current bill expires. The farm bill includes funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, formerly the food-stamp program, established in the 1970s.

That the program has been an unmitigated success is irrefutable — if ensuring that Americans don’t go hungry in this land of plenty is one’s mission. That it has been a cesspool of waste, fraud and abuse, as lawmakers who want to make brutal and inhumane budget cuts contend, is simply not true. It’s a ruse, an excuse to throw poor people under the bus. Of course, these are some of the same lawmakers who thought that shutting down the government was a hoot.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012, SNAP benefits kept more than 5 million people from falling into poverty, coming in the third most helpful behind Social Security and refundable tax credits. It is a means-tested and efficient federal program that responds quickly to need. SNAP grew between 2008 and 2011, a reflection of the increasing numbers of people who lost employment. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the number of individuals receiving SNAP in an average month grew from 26.3 million in 2007 to over 46 million in 2011. SNAP enrollment growth slowed last year, however, as the economy began to recover.

Still, the depth of cuts that some lawmakers are insisting on goes far beyond merely trimming SNAP funding because slightly fewer people need the benefits. The Senate’s version proposes $4 billion in cuts during the next 10 years. In the House? Rabid lawmakers there want to cut almost 10 times that over the coming decade. Almost 4 million people would lose SNAP benefits in 2014 alone. And when families lose their eligibility for SNAP, their children also lose their ability to get free meals at school. Too often, that is the only well-rounded and nutritional meal that poor kids get on a daily basis.

In addition, the House bill would let states impose work requirements on SNAP recipients. Indeed, those who are able to work should; however, there are no new initiatives for job training or placement. And in this still recovering economy, there’s still no guarantee that an able-bodied recipient who is ready to work will find employment. Should such people starve in the meantime?

As for claims that SNAP is rife with fraud, that’s a non-starter. Yes, there are abuses, and any amount should be rooted out. However, SNAP has one of the lowest fraud rates among federal programs — 1.3 percent. And the USDA continues to crack down: This year, it has removed more than 800 stores from eligibility for trafficking in SNAP benefits or falsifying applications; required more frequent reviews of high-risk retailers; prevented benefits from being illegally sold on social media; and established using data-sharing agreements with states to target suspicious recipients.

Hypocritical lawmakers should not undercut this successful and beneficial program. They’re the only ones trying to game the system.

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