September 13, 2013

The Attack at Home

A new bill threatens the food security of millions Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

While the attention of the country has been riveted on President Obama’s proposals to launch missile strikes in Syria, hidden in the shadows, the House of Representatives has been busily preparing an attack of its own. This attack will not be directed against a foreign government accused of massacring innocent civilians with chemical weapons. Rather, it will be launched right here at home, and its targets are our fellow citizens, whose crime is simply being poor and dependent on federal assistance in order to eat and feed their families.

In the coming week, House Republicans will introduce a bill that delivers a major blow to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. For 48 million Americans, 17 million of them children, food stamps serve as a fragile lifeline to food. SNAP benefits are far from adequate, since a family of four might receive at most about $668 in assistance per month, while many receive less. Recipients often run out of funds before the end of the month, and they usually have to restrict their purchases to processed foods—cheap and high in calories but lacking the vital nutrients provided by more costly fruits and vegetables.

Despite these shortcomings, SNAP still serves as a critical safety net that protects the vulnerable from an even deeper plunge into the pit of food insecurity, a situation in which they might have to skip meals, reduce their nutritional intake, or go for days without eating. The program has been found to be particularly effective in improving the health and learning abilities of children, who find it hard to concentrate at school with empty bellies. From an economic standpoint, food stamps have proven to be an asset rather than a liability. A study by the Department of Agriculture found that each $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.84 in gross domestic product (GDP). An independent study says that "expanding food stamps is the most effective way to prime the economy's pump."

The people who depend on SNAP are by no means exploiters of the country's largesse: almost 90 percent live in either poverty or extreme poverty. The program thus provides a helping hand to those who, without these benefits, would have no way to feed their families. However, this hand may soon be withdrawn. This coming week, the Republican majority in the House will introduce a bill that slashes spending on SNAP by $40 billion over the next ten years. To get an idea of what this means, consider that in June the Senate approved a bill to reduce spending on SNAP by $4 billion over the next decade. Earlier this year the House had debated a bill that would have cut SNAP spending by $20.5 billion over the next decade—a figure over five times that proposed in the Senate. After prolonged debate, in July House conservatives decided to put off a new proposal until the end of the summer.

Now they have drafted a bill, and it’s one that would double the cuts to SNAP from $20.5 billion to $40 billion. The bill also lays down more stringent requirements for obtaining food stamps and more flexible conditions for states to deny nutritional assistance to those who apply. This double whammy is bound to hit millions of struggling people with the force of a shock-and-awe bombing campaign. 

What consequences will this draconian measure bring about, should it prevail? The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities offers a detailed analysis of the likely impacts of the cuts, the main features of which I’ll summarize:

It would deny SNAP to between 4 and 6 million low-income people, as well as many low-income children, seniors, and families that work for low wages. These would include 2 to 4 million poor, unemployed, childless adults who live in areas of high unemployment, and 1.8 million people who have gross incomes or assets modestly above the federal SNAP limits, but disposable income below the poverty line. Two hundred and ten thousand children in these families would also lose free school meals. The bill authorizes states to cut off an entire family’s food assistance benefits, including their children’s—and for an unlimited time—if the parents don't find a job or job training slot. However, the bill apparently provides no measures to create jobs, no work or workfare programs, and no additional funds for work or training slots.

While the bill’s proponents insist that recipients of SNAP must get off their butts and find a job, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that this “rhetoric about the importance of work also overlooks the fact that most SNAP recipients who can work do so. More than 80 percent of SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult worked in the year before or after receiving SNAP.”

Families do not turn to the government for assistance in meeting their basic food needs because they are lazy and want handouts from officials with bleeding hearts. The reason is simply that they can't afford adequate food, and they can't afford it because jobs are scarce, incomes stagnant or declining in real purchasing power, and too many jobs pay wages that are minimal or as close to the minimum as employers can get away with. For this reason poverty in this country remains at unconscionable levels, with the gap between the super-rich and everyone else growing wider

When President Obama turned to Congress to marshal support for rocket attacks against the Assad regime in Syria, conservatives in the House voiced doubts and objections, maintaining that such an attack would not advance our interests. Few objected that we don’t have the funds to support another war. If they had felt we had some stake in the conflict, they would have certainly found the funds. When it’s a matter of war, somehow funds always manage to materialize.

When, however, it comes to helping the poor and needy, they suddenly find themselves crashing into a wall of fiscal constraints that force them to allow a substantial segment of our population to slip down the slope of poverty. Instead of bringing forth hearts of compassion to renew—even expand—the programs that provide for people’s needs, our elected officials harden their hearts and close their hands.

It is often said that a budget is a moral document. How our representatives spend our taxes reveals in stark black and white our nation's values and concerns. And how we respond to their decisions reveals, too, our own souls, our own deepest values. These responses show where we stand in relation to our neighbors and to those across the country who share our humanity, who look to us for a ladder up from the pains of poverty, illness, and hunger. When a proposed bill puts lives at risk and endangers the future of millions—including millions of children—it must be flatly rejected on the most compelling moral grounds.


Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a Theravada Buddhist monk originally from New York City. He is the former editor of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, Sri Lanka, and has many important publications to his credit, the most recent being his full translation of the Anguttara Nikaya (Wisdom Publications, 2012). In 2008, he founded Buddhist Global Relief, a nonprofit sponsoring hunger relief and education in countries suffering from chronic poverty and malnutrition.


Images courtesy of Flickr/NCReedplayer, Flickr/Conway L.


Further Reading

A Moral Politics: Nourishing change in US food policy

Into the Fire: Food in the Age of Climate Change

Preserving the Fecundity of the Earth: Climate change poses the single greatest threat to the world’s food supply. But we can stop it.

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buddhaddy's picture

the Buddha or his monks never meditated when hungry?

Tharpa Pema's picture

Thank you, Tricycle, for publishing this.
P.S. Just wrote my representative.

justone's picture

Agreed. The system must change. Write your reps. My wife and I also attended the Empty Bowls event today. Good work to raise money and awareness around our community about food security. They happen all over the US I think.

Thank you.

Jim Spencer's picture

good response! reaching for my pen...