May 13, 2007
Hunger and Food Stamps
If you think people do not go hungry in America, you’re wrong. At last count in 2005, 35 million low-income Americans — about a third of them children — lived in households that cannot consistently afford enough to eat. Since 2005, the situation has most likely become worse. Last year, real wages for low-income workers were still below 2001 levels. This year, job growth is slowing and prices are rising.
And each year, the federal food stamp program — the bulwark against hunger for 26 million Americans — does less to help. In large part, that is because a key component of the formula for computing most families’ food stamps has not been adjusted for inflation since 1996. Over all, food stamps now average a meager $1.05 per person per meal.
Bolstering food stamps must be Congress’s top priority in this year’s farm bill, the mammoth legislation that covers the food stamp program.
Most important, lawmakers must stop the erosion in the purchasing power of food stamps, either by pegging the benefit formula to inflation or by making a big increase in the formula’s standard deduction. In 2002, when the last farm bill was passed, Congress improved the benefit formula for households with four or more people. But nearly 80 percent of all food stamp households have three or fewer members. It is unacceptable that their food stamps buy less food each year.
Congress should also repeal the provision that imposes a five-year residency requirement on otherwise eligible adult legal immigrants. (Illegal immigrants are not eligible for food stamps.) The children of such immigrants — 80 percent of whom are United States citizens — can receive food stamps without waiting. But confusion over the rules keeps many of them out of the program. The Department of Agriculture reports that of the children of immigrant parents who are citizens and eligible for food stamps, only 52 percent got them in 2004, compared with 82 percent of eligible children over all.
Taken together, those two reforms would cost roughly $3 billion over the next five years. In the competitive frenzy of a farm bill, that is money lawmakers would be inclined to fight over. But Democrats and Republicans alike must realize that improving food stamps is a moral and economic necessity. Food stamp allotments were cut in 1996 to free up money to ease the transition from welfare to work. But since then, food stamps themselves have become a crucial support for working families. Among food stamp households with children, twice as many work as rely solely on welfare.
Inadequate aid affects not only the amount of food a family can buy, but also the types of purchases. With too few dollars to spend, junk food becomes the best value because it is calorie dense, cheap and imperishable.
Adjustments around the edges of the food stamp program will not be enough. President Bush has proposed exempting families’ meager retirement savings when calculating whether they are poor enough for food stamps. He also wants to allow families to deduct their full child care costs from the benefit calculation. Both changes would be helpful and Congress should embrace them. But Congress also needs to make much bigger changes, now.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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