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Make surgical, not slashing cuts, to food stamp program

Nutrition
Poverty & Family Economics

Sun Sentinel Editorial Board

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Last week, roughly 3.6 million Floridians saw their food-stamp allotments cut, reductions that will mean the loss of up to $36 per month for a family of four. Unfortunately, the pain may not stop there.

Congress is considering even deeper cuts in the food-stamp program. The U.S. House passed legislation to cut $4 billion annually and tighten eligibility rules to eliminate 10 percent of recipients. The Senate cut is more modest — $400 million a year. The two sides met in conference this week, but couldn’t agree on how to close the yawning spending gap.

While the economy may be recovering, now is simply not the time for Congress to dramatically cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. There simply aren’t enough good-paying jobs to keep poor and low-income families from going hungry. Already, one in six Americans who can’t make ends meet are forced to skip meals, sometimes for days. Many are children.

“Yes, the federal government has budget problems, but children didn’t cause them, and cutting anti-hunger investments is the wrong way to solve them,” Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus Campaign for Children, told the New York Times.

Solutions are not easy, because added funds from the 2009 stimulus package have dried up, representing a loss of $5 billion over the next year.

But as Congress negotiates the farm bill, which covers the now-controversial food stamp program, our representatives would better serve us by taking a hard look at bloated agricultural subsidies that sometimes pay agribusiness for doing nothing. For while the federal government spends $80 billion a year on food stamps, it’s a small part of the $500 billion multi-year farm bill that sets policies on farm subsidies and other rural projects.

Yes, trims are needed in the food stamp program, but draconian cuts to food-insecure Americans are unacceptable.

Florida receives $6 billion in food-stamp benefits, which provides relief to one of every five Floridians, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank.

During the Great Recession, the rolls grew dramatically when the Obama administration made it easier for jobless people to apply for benefits. The stimulus also increased the program’s monthly benefit to an average $133 — hardly a champagne-and-caviar amount.

However, fear of a bloated safety-net program has prompted congressional Republicans to pursue deep cuts. Led by Republican Rep. Steve Southerland from the Florida Panhandle, the House wants to cut $39 billion over 10 years and set new eligibility standards that would remove 3.8 million recipients, including 400,000 Floridians.

The bill also would limit benefits to three months, require recipients to be tested for drugs, and require adults between 18 and 50 without minor children to find a job or enroll in work-training to receive benefits.

“This bill makes getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation’s welfare programs,” House Speaker John A. Boehner said.

It’s never easy to reduce safety-net benefits, particularly one so tied to an essential commodity – food. Making sensible cuts is one thing. But gutting a program that helps vulnerable families and individuals survive in a weak economy hardly defines American exceptionalism.

With unemployment still high and hunger persisting, a viable food-stamp program is still needed.

We urge our representatives to make surgical trims to the program, but block the proposed machete-style cuts that would hurt those Florida families and children who can least afford it.

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