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30 Years of Tackling Hunger on a Bipartisan Basis Is in Danger of Failing This Fall

U.S. Capitol Building

SOURCE: AP/Carolyn Kaster

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See also: Infographic: Stop Slashing SNAP by Sarah Baron and Melissa Boteach

Every five years for the past three decades, members of Congress have been able to reach across the aisle and work together to tackle the pressing problem of hunger in our nation through the passage of the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act, or the farm bill—specifically the nutrition assistance portion of the bill. As a result of this joint bipartisan effort, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP—originally the food stamp program—has enjoyed tremendous success over the years. It lifted 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2011 alone, and has an estimated return of $1.70 for the economy for every dollar invested. As part of the farm bill, SNAP has been reauthorized relatively seamlessly seven times.

Oh, how times have changed. Paying little heed to the past 30 years of a bipartisan agreement and success in fighting hunger, House Republicans have now placed SNAP on the chopping block as they pursue their reckless, cuts-cuts-cuts approach to governing. Their latest proposal is to cut the program by $40 billion—double what they approved only months earlier. The new proposal will cut an estimated 4 million to 6 million people from nutrition assistance.

What’s at stake? According to data released this month, one in six Americans struggled with hunger in 2012, about the same as in 2011. In 2011, SNAP provided support to 47 million low-income Americans each month so they could afford nutritionally adequate food for their families. Nearly 72 percent of these participants were in families with children, and one-quarter were households with seniors or people with disabilities. What’s more, these proposed cuts come on top of a cut already set to take place in November, when a temporary SNAP boost provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 expires.

There’s nothing partisan about the way that hunger impacts struggling families from urban to rural areas, across districts, and across states. That is why Congress has come together for decades—despite party lines—to assist families fighting against hunger. As SNAP sits on the brink of serious and devastating cuts, Congress should do a little homework and take a closer look at the efficiency and effectiveness of the program, its impact on economic activity, and the reasons it has always been a bipartisan effort to address a serious problem facing families in our country. Here are some things Congress should seriously consider when contemplating the farm bill.

The farm bill’s tumultuous journey

Over the past year, the farm bill has had a tumultuous journey, and its fate still remains unclear. It was up for renewal in 2012 and passed the Senate, but the House voted to extend the current bill for only a year rather than voting on a new bill, which would cover the next five years. Since the late 1930s, it has been updated every five years.

In June of this year, the Senate again passed a farm bill that already contained a cut to SNAP of $4 billion. Meanwhile, the House voted on a version of the bill with $20.5 billion in SNAP cuts. This version failed in the House not only because Democrats refused to vote for such drastic cuts, but also because the proposed measure couldn’t garner enough Republican votes for approval. The extreme conservatives in the House argued that the cuts in the House version were even too small and insisted on restraining “big government,” not by cutting farm subsidies but by further reducing benefits for low-income families.

In a desperate and unprecedented move, the House then passed a farm bill in July that completely stripped nutrition support from the bill. The standalone bill, which was rushed to the House floor under emergency rules after an overnight introduction, passed by a narrow 216-208 vote, drawing protests from more than 500 organizations and receiving absolutely no support from House Democrats.

Right before leaving town for summer recess, it was revealed that the House Republican leadership now plans to double down on their proposed cuts to nutrition assistance in a new standalone nutrition bill. Instead of their originally proposed $20.5 billion in cuts to SNAP before recess, they now plan to advance a bill this month that will cut SNAP by $40 billion over 10 years.

A bipartisan solution to a national challenge

When deciding the fate of nutrition assistance in the farm bill, the first thing Congress should do is review its own bipartisan history when it comes to tackling hunger. Food stamps were created during World War II as a way to bridge the gap between plentiful farm surpluses and hunger in urban areas. Congress discontinued the program in the 1950s because of an improved economy, but hunger persisted in America. By the early 1960s, Congress could no longer ignore the pervasive levels of hunger and poverty across the nation. In the wealthiest country in the world, millions were suffering from hunger and even extreme malnutrition—at levels comparable to developing countries.

The public wanted something done about hunger and Congress acted. President John F. Kennedy, issuing an executive order in 1961, reintroduced the food stamp program as a pilot program. In 1964, Congress made the program permanent under the leadership of President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his War on Poverty initiative. Another pivotal moment came when Americans read news stories as the late Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-MA) toured poor communities of the Mississippi Delta in 1967, witnessing small children suffering from distended bellies firsthand as a result of extreme hunger. And in 1968, CBS aired a landmark documentary, “Hunger in America,” moving many Americans to take further action, including Sens. Bob Dole (R-KS) and George McGovern (D-SD), who would become one of the food stamp program’s strongest bipartisan leadership teams.

These modern nutrition assistance programs had an immediate, positive impact, which significantly reduced hunger and malnutrition. It was this success in tackling hunger that led to a series of reauthorizations and improvements to nutrition assistance programs, including notable bipartisan expansion and improvement efforts spearheaded by leadership teams such as Sens. Dole and McGovern in 1977, and Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) in 2008.

Effective, efficient, and good for the economy

Besides Congress’s traditional shared commitment to tackling hunger in America, nutrition assistance has enjoyed such a strong bipartisan history because it is effective, efficient, and good for the economy.

It’s effective by virtue of the fact that in 2011 it lifted 4.7 million people out of poverty, and new research shows that SNAP cut extreme poverty—defined as households with children living on $2 or less per person per day—almost in half in 2011.

It’s efficient because the program was designed to expand and contract as a response to the economy. When the Great Recession hit our country, SNAP responded quickly when millions of Americans lost their jobs and poverty rose. Unable to make sufficient earnings due to an economic cycle out of their control, Americans turned to SNAP to help feed their families. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, cited the Great Recession beginning in 2007 and lasting through 2009 as the “primary” reason for the increase in SNAP participation between 2007 and 2011. Spending on nutrition assistance has already slowed with an improving economy and is expected to begin shrinking by the end of 2014, even without new cuts to the program. The CBO projects that SNAP expenditures will decline by $5 billion by 2020. And since the 1990s, the combined error rate in the program has been steadily declining due to rigorous quality control systems. The combined error rate, which represents both overpayments and underpayments, reached an all-time low of 3.8 percent in 2011. The result net loss for the federal government from this rate was even smaller—2.18 percent. To compare, crop insurance programs, which were included in the House farm bill, have an estimated fraud rate of 4.7 percent.

Finally, SNAP is good for the economy. In addition to putting food on the table for struggling families, the program is an efficient economic stimulus with a good return for taxpayers. Moody’s Analytics estimates that every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates $1.70 in economic activity. Not only that, but the Congressional Budget Office considered increasing SNAP benefits one of the most cost-effective expenditures of tax dollars in its consideration of boosting growth and jobs in a weak economy.

Don’t let hunger harm our nation’s future

The current proposals put forward by House Republicans will have a direct and immediate impact on the ability of struggling families to put food on the table, which has consequences for all of us. In November of this year, SNAP benefits will automatically decrease as the Recovery Act expires. This alone means that SNAP benefits will average less than $1.40 per person per meal. The original $20 billion in cuts proposed by House Republicans would eliminate almost 2 million people from nutrition assistance, including cutting 210,000 children from school lunches. As if that weren’t enough, based on their most recent proposal, introduced right before the recess, House Republicans now want to double those cuts to $40 billion over the next 10 years, cutting 2 million to 4 million more poor people from the program.

You don’t need to be an expert to know that hunger will hurt our future. The SNAP cuts proposed by the House Republican leadership will harm children’s ability to learn, which in turn will adversely affect our future competitiveness. Research shows that infants and toddlers in food-insecure households are 90 percent more likely to have worse health than other children and are 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized. As they grow up, these same children tend to continue to have degraded physical and mental health compared to their peers. These drawbacks carry over into school, where children from food-insecure households tend to perform worse in reading and math, are more likely to experience behavioral problems, and are at a greater risk of truancy and tardiness. Hunger affects children’s development on all levels and harms their chances for a healthy, productive life, which hampers their potential to become drivers of our nation’s future economic success.

Conclusion

Having gotten off to a poor start in passing a farm bill, the House, unlike the Senate, has even refused to appoint negotiators to hash out differences related to nutrition assistance. Instead, House Republican leadership is signaling that they prefer to double down on proposed SNAP cuts that were already stunningly harsh by introducing a new bill this month. Hopefully members of Congress took some time off during recess to do their homework, as they get ready to negotiate a final farm bill over the coming weeks. It makes absolutely no sense to recklessly cut an effective, efficient program with a long bipartisan history that adds to our economic growth—all while reducing hunger in America.

Erik Stegman is the Manager of the Half in Ten Education Fund at the Center for American Progress. Nicole Williams was an intern at the Center.

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