President Signs Farm Bill with Food Stamp Cuts that Hurt America's Most Vulnerable

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Posted Feb. 12, 2014

Interview with Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, conducted by Scott Harris

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Surrounded by hay bales and politicians at Michigan State University on Feb. 7, President Obama signed into law the federal farm bill which will cut $8.6 billion from the federal food stamps program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, during the next decade. Along with the cuts, the law provides agribusiness $7 billion in crop insurance and new subsidies for rice and peanut growers.

The farm bill cuts come on top of $5 billion in funding reductions for food stamps last year – and such cuts amplify Congress’s failure to renew emergency federal unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans, which expired on Dec. 28.

While Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he did not expect the cut of about 1 percent of the food stamp budget to have a significant impact on recipients, advocates for the nation’s poor disagreed. According to the Congressional Budget Office, cuts to the food stamp program are expected to affect about 1.7 million people across 15 states where 850,000 households would lose an average of $90 per month in benefits. Since 2006 food banks around the country have seen a 50 percent increase in the number of Americans requesting food aid. Now with new cuts to the food stamp program, many charities that operate food pantries are bracing for yet more demand for basic food supplies, which many say they will be unable to meet.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Joel Berg, author of the book, "All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?" who serves as executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Here, he assesses the impact of food stamp cuts on the poor and the broader public policy debate on addressing hunger in America.

JOEL BERG: Well, really, our country has lost its mind and its soul — not to be too dramatic about it, but it’s just true; we know exactly what works in fighting hunger, because in the late 1970s, when we created more living-wage jobs — insured an adequate safety net — we almost entirely ended hunger in America, and we’ve just gone backward since then, starting with the Reagan-era set of myths that uncoordinated private charities could solve problems that government should be solving. And so, right now, we are having the largest cuts in SNAP, in food stamps, in a generation, instead of increasing the program to help families buy more nutritious food, by fuller allotments of food. And instead of paying for that by cutting corporate welfare, we’re actually doing the reverse: We’re cutting funding for poor peoples’ programs to fund more corporate welfare, sort of Robin Hood in reverse.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Joel, if you could put it into concrete terms, what kinds of meals are people going to be missing as a result of these cuts, in terms of children, who make up a large proportion of people who depend on SNAP food stamps to eat each and every day?

JOEL BERG: Well, look. Children are half of the recipients of SNAP benefits, so if you lose $35 a month, as these cuts already went through, that’s a good 20 meals a month you’re going to have. Now, there’s still other ways of getting help from soup kitchens and soup pantries, and school lunches for kids, and WIC program, but WIC was cut back by the sequestration, so you know, we are taught as Americans — we’re socialized into thinking — that there’s always going to be some Frank Capra-esque happy ending. You know — the Banker’s going to feel guilty, and give back the money. Or the Food Company is going to come in, and have a huge delivery at the end.

Generally, that’s not what happens; there are not happy endings. What happens – if we don’t fight back successfully in the political system – is poor people suffer most. They’ll have fewer meals, they’ll go hungry, or the greatest irony of all is they’ll become obese, because obesity and hunger are flipsides of the same malnutrition coin.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Joel, what you hear from Democrats who supported this bill to cut food stamps, is that the Republicans were demanding something like $39 billion in cuts over the next 10 years, so they see this, somehow, as the lesser of two evils. What would you say about the Democrats’ position here on the food stamp cuts? Could they have done anything differently, given the position of House Republicans who wanted to cut more deeply?

JOEL BERG: That position of the Democrats is nothing short of a cop-out. Today, Democrats are theoretically in charge of the U.S. Senate and in charge of the White House, and why they think they have to settle every single dispute with the lowest common denominator of something marginally less insane than the most insane position of a minority position within a minority party, is really beyond me. The people who sunk our economic ship should not be complaining that we’re giving life preservers to the drowning.

And, we should spend more money on food stamps. It’s good for the economy, it prevents hunger, helps kids do well in school, and the Democrats should have proposed more spending. There’s no question the Republicans are worse, there’s no question the Republicans want the bigger cut, but we’ve lowered the bar so much, you know; an ant couldn’t crawl under that bar. And we’ve got to raise the bar, instead saying ‘Boy, if there’s some extra, extra, extra extremists on that side, then we can only be extreme with two extras!' And somehow that’s common sense.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And what can be done, from your point of view as an activist, on this issue? What could be done to try to effect change, to reverse these challenges?

JOEL BERG: We need to build a movement of low-income people, around the country. There are 47 million people who need to utilize SNAP benefits. If you add together every member of a union, and every anti-union group, every NRA member, and every handgun control group, every right-to-life group and every pro-choice group, they’re not going to add up to 47 million people. So we need to organize, organize, organize low-income people, and not just expect that non-poor people are going to feel guilty, and say "Oh my goodness, this is bad; let me pay more in taxes so my neighbors don’t starve."

I think first and foremost, we have to remember that no true social movement in the world has been won by one people on behalf of another. And that’s one of the things we’re doing with the New York City Coalition Against Hunger — is to organize low-income people to speak on their own behalf, and I think we need to do that nationwide.

For more information on the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, NYCCAH.org.

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