Does hunger cause people to work harder, or to make better decisions as to how to spend what little money they may have? OK, let’s say the pangs of an empty stomach – or the thought of one’s children enduring those pangs – might engender focus on doing what one needs to do. “Les Miserables” comes to mind.
Just as likely, however, is that hunger causes a loss of concentration and that sense of purpose often accompanying successful completion of a task. As a motivational tool, hunger leaves a lot to be desired.
Tell that to the conservatives who, in a kind of perverse social engineering, seem to think that cutting back on public food assistance will induce poor people to buck up, get off their couches, sign up for those decent-paying jobs that are just hanging there waiting to be plucked.
Of course there may be instances where a shrinking food stamp allotment is all the spur someone needs to go out and take a nice indoor job with no heavy lifting, or even agree to hard outdoor labor in exchange for a steady (although probably not lavish) paycheck.
Most of the time, that’s not the way it works. People remain unemployed because they can’t find jobs that are accessible, for which they’re qualified, and that pay enough to bring in a net return after expenses. It’s not that they prefer joblessness and having to juggle their meager funds to secure a roof over their heads, serviceable clothes, a functioning vehicle along with food adequate to sustain them and their kids through their daily routines. It’s that in today’s economy, and perhaps because of other factors wholly outside their control, they have no choice.
For all that, the federal government’s food stamp outlays are shrinking. It’s not clear whether the cuts will be small or large. What does seem certain is that the charities – many of them operating out of a sense of religious duty — now doing so much to help feed the nation’s hungry will have a hard time picking up the slack.
That point was emphasized recently by a group of 24 Southeastern religious leaders, including three from North Carolina: Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the NC Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Betty L. Meadows, transitional general presbyter of the Presbytery of Charlotte, and the NC Council of Churches’ executive director, the Rev. George Reed. In a public letter, they pointed out that while church offerings have trended downward during the recession and its aftermath, local churches have managed to increase their support for food assistance.
What churches can’t be expected to do, the leaders said, was to bear even more responsibility for feeding the hungry while the government (meaning taxpayers) bears less.
In North Carolina, some 1.7 million residents, or 18 percent of the population, receive food stamp benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP as it’s called. Alan Briggs, executive director of the NC Association of Feeding America Food Banks, outlined the program’s impact in a recent article for The News & Observer of Raleigh. He said the average monthly benefit here is $121.37 per person, which equates to about $4 per day.
“More than 80 percent of the benefits go to households with incomes under the poverty line,” Briggs wrote. “Benefit levels are highest for the poorest. In North Carolina 73 percent of the recipients are families with children, and 27 percent goes to households with an elderly or disabled member. Significantly, 40 percent goes to participants who are in working families. Benefits can be used only to purchase food and only at authorized retailers.”
Given the number of people in our state who count on SNAP to help put food on the table, cuts in the program will mean paltry food budgets must be stretched even farther. The first hit came at the end of October, when a temporary boost in benefits that was tied to the recession was allowed to expire – prematurely, some say, given ongoing joblessness. The temporary increase in effect since 2009 did cause costs to swell, but it also acted as an economic stimulus while helping feed many families. Now, a family of four will see benefits trimmed by $36 a month, and the state’s food stamp allotment will drop by an estimated $166 million over the coming year.
That might not be the worst of it. In Washington, the House and Senate are in the throes of trying to negotiate a new Farm Bill, legislation that includes SNAP. The conservative-dominated House wants to slash food stamp outlays by $40 billion over the next decade. The Senate has proposed cutting only a tenth as much.
It’s anyone’s guess, amid the overall Farm Bill jockeying, what the agreed-upon number will be, but there seems little chance of avoiding cuts of some magnitude. No wonder churches and food banks – whose members and supporters are grassroots hunger-fighters in their communities and who understand, better than many, what’s at stake – have risen up to try to limit the damage.
Loaves and fishes?
Consider a statistic cited by the Southeastern religious leaders: With an estimated 350,000 religious congregations across the country, to offset the House’s proposed SNAP cuts along with those that took effect this month, every one of those congregations would need to ramp up its charitable food assistance by about $14,500 a year. Even within the context of what many consider a sacred mission, that would be asking a lot.
Those who favor food stamp cutbacks typically see them as helping control government expenses while counteracting what they perceive as a culture of dependency among the poor – as if the prospect of getting $4 a day to spend at the grocery would seriously be a disincentive to finding and taking a good-paying job.
As a nation we’re better than this — raising the chances that some of our neighbors, young, old or somewhere in between, will have to face tomorrow dreading the distinct possibility that they won’t get enough to eat because they didn’t get enough today. Meanwhile the fortunate among us graze our way through opulent supermarkets and patronize our choice of restaurants when we can’t be bothered to cook.
Food aid donated through the goodness of people’s hearts is truly a blessing, but it never has been sufficient to meet the challenge of combating hunger among the poor. It isn’t now and likely never will be. We are a stronger country when the government asks the entire taxpaying public to make sure none of us lacks the basic nutrition we need to stay healthy, to succeed in school, and to do productive work when that work is available. SNAP cannot be allowed to wither.