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Point Austin: Help the Hungry

Give thanks, give money, raise your voice

By Michael King, Fri., Nov. 29, 2013

We've already cut food for the hungry. We're getting ready to cut more.

That's the bottom line on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Pro­gram (SNAP, formerly "food stamps"), the official line of last resort for families that live on the edge of food insecurity much of the time. The first blow was a roughly $5 billion cut that took effect Nov. 1, when a 2009 stimulus provision was allowed to expire, although it had originally been timed to inflation that never occurred. In Texas, that meant roughly four million people have less money for food than they had last month – an average of $36 less for a family of four. On a tight budget, that can mean a week's meals.

Going forward, among the "grand bargain" matters under endless consideration by Congress is the omnibus farm bill that includes SNAP. The Senate version proposes another $4 billion in cuts over 10 years; the House version targets $40 billion. The best hope for hungry Americans is that no grand or petty bargain ever happens – although the likelihood is more cuts, somewhere in the middle. This is for a program that not only directly reduces hunger, but which for every dollar spent contributes $1.70 to the economy.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities provides a quick summary of the Texans helped by SNAP. One in six Texas families is struggling with hunger, and "over three-quarters of the 3.6 million Texans who receive SNAP benefits are children, seniors, or persons with disabilities. To qualify, a family's net earnings must be below the federal poverty level, $22,350 for a family of four. The majority of SNAP households include someone who works, and program rules require all able-bodied adults to work to receive benefits."

This would seem like the definition of a rational public policy, designed to help those who most need the help, and to do so with direct aid for immediate need. It's also worth recalling that this aid is historically part of the farm bill because it was also designed to support agricultural production. Although critics like to claim that such programs encourage "welfare dependency," the average period spent on SNAP is about six months, and the punitive work requirement is mostly unnecessary. According to CPPP, 60% of poor families include working adults, and for the "near poor" – those with incomes above the official poverty line, yet barely making ends meet – 78% include working adults.

In that context, it's more accurate to describe SNAP and similar anti-poverty programs as subsidizing employers, not employees – the "human resource" departments at Wal-Mart and other major corporations are adept at directing their "associates" to government programs that supplement the companies' meager wages and benefits.

Food, Money, Advocacy

I recite these too-familiar statistics because we've entered the season when it's customary for all of us to give thanks for our own blessings and recall what we might do for those who haven't been quite so fortunate. A very good place to begin is the Capital Area Food Bank (www.austinfoodbank.org), which all year has been helping to provide sustenance for our 21-county area; as spokeswoman Sara LeStrange puts it, "Hunger is a holiday memory that no one should have." According to national reports, the proposed House cuts would mean not only that six million people would lose assistance; food banks would have to double their current output to meet the rising need. That's flatly impossible.

That's why this season, nonprofit advocates are asking, in addition to donations of food and money, that people write their representatives to oppose any further cuts. Asked what people should do right now to help the hungry, Texas Food Bank Network spokesman J.C. Dwyer said, "Advocacy is especially necessary right now; a call or letter to Congress to protect the federal nutrition programs could do much more than a bag of food!" Nevertheless, direct help is still needed, Dwyer continued: "Food banks are always in need of supplies, and financial donations go further than donations of food."

Volunteers are also welcome, and many companies schedule their "team" volunteers for the holiday period. Indeed, people are also requested to schedule hours for upcoming "down" time, notably at the turn of the year, in January and February.

Speak Out

TFBN CEO Celia Cole reiterated that the recent cuts – let alone the contemplated $40 billion cut – are simply not replaced by charity. "No matter how much we work," Cole said, "we can't make up for a cut of that magnitude. Forty billion dollars would be unprecedented, equal to our total output, of all the food banks, nationwide. A cut of that magnitude would essentially wipe out our impact."

The CAFB's LeStrange pointed out that even before the Nov. 1 cut took effect, in the last year the CAFB distributed seven million more pounds of food than last year, for a total of 27 million pounds – and often to people already trying to get by on SNAP. "The funds they're getting aren't enough to put food on the table," LeStrange said. "That investment from the government is really huge. We can't fight hunger without them; we need them more than we need any other partner we have. If the folks we serve weren't getting SNAP, we wouldn't be able to make up that difference."

So there you have it: Our neighbors need our help, but they also need our advocacy, so that the folks doing the front-line work against hunger aren't overwhelmed by the need. People need to donate, said Cole, and even while donating, "We ask people to raise their voices, too."

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