Time to Speak —CCK urges Congress to support food stamps

By Father Patrick Delahanty

Fr. Patrick Delahanty
Fr. Patrick Delahanty

Members of the House of Representatives have a lot on their plate in the coming months. Nothing is more important to the nearly 900,000 Kentuckians who need food stamps than a proposed cut of $40 billion dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The Catholic Conference of Kentucky calls upon our members of the House of Representatives to reject any such proposal to weaken the Food Stamp program and reduce benefits to hungry people.

We believe access to food is a basic human right. In the words of Pope Francis at an event in Brazil, “Dear friends, it is certainly necessary to give bread to the hungry — this is an act of justice.”

Though the Senate passed a Farm Bill that included $4 billion in cuts to the Food Stamp program, the House Farm Bill removed the nutrition portion from its bill without the intention of eliminating the program. Now the House is proposing stand-alone legislation that weakens and restructures the program in
spite of the fact that millions of Americans will be harmed.

Hiding behind the political cliché of waste, fraud and abuse, the House proposal removes 4-6 million poor, hungry people from the program. To make matters worse, 47 million recipients, including nearly 900,000 Kentuckians, will see benefits reduced November 1 because the 2009 Recovery Act — which provided an increase in SNAP benefits due to the recession – expires.

Writing in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Kentucky House members — Reps. Barr, Guthrie, Rogers and Whitfield — stated: “Reforming the food stamp program is not about being ’spiteful’ or denying people benefits; it’s about eliminating the waste that prevents Kentucky families who truly need help from getting it.”

Since that letter was published, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released a report showing the agency spent nearly $15 million on undue payouts through the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation while issuing no major overpayments for nutrition assistance, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The number of participants and the cost of the program have increased, not because of waste and fraud, but because in hard economic times the number of jobless and underemployed persons increased. Indeed, it enjoys one of the lowest rates of fraud and abuse of any federal program. USDA data reveals that the error rate in the distribution of food stamps is at an all-time low.

USDA has also released new data showing why poor and vulnerable persons, many of whom are working, need food stamps. In Kentucky, 15.6 percent of households report serious problems paying for adequate, nutritious food. In Kentucky 285,000 experienced food insecurity; 113,000 experienced very low food insecurity. One or more individuals in those households eat less than nutritionally needed.

Jason Bailey, Director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, analyzed this data and wrote that these “new numbers today show once again that the House proposal to deeply cut SNAP is incredibly misguided. Whether a person is unemployed and using basic food assistance to feed their children while they look for work, a senior having to choose between buying needed medication or paying for groceries or a single mother who has a job but doesn’t make enough to put food on the table, SNAP provides a lifeline to people when they need it most.”

An especially harsh component of the proposed legislation adds work requirements in order to receive benefits. There are work requirements now, but state waivers are permitted and forty-five states, including Kentucky, have received waivers due to local employment conditions. This proposal will prohibit any state waiver and will not provide the guarantee of a job or job training. Voting for this would kick people and families off the program with no job.

As a result childless adults aged 18 to 50 who can’t find at least a half-time job would be summarily thrown off the program after 90 days — regardless of how high local unemployment is. The resulting hardship would be extraordinary. Most of these childless adults are already ineligible for any federal cash assistance and, in most states, for any state or local cash assistance either — no matter how poor they are. Or whether they have food needed for life.

To reduce the number of persons who need food stamps, Congress should be spending time and money on creating full-time, living wage jobs so workers can support their families.

Until that is done, the Catholic Conference of Kentucky urges Kentucky’s delegation to reject any effort to weaken the Food Stamp safety net. Instead, they ought to support the SNAP program because it is one of the most effective and important Federal programs to combat hunger in the nation. No other public or private sector program provides more food assistance for low-income Americans. SNAP lifts up both life and human dignity.

Father Delahanty is the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.

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