Food stamps

Americans across the political spectrum have long agreed on the importance of reducing hunger in our country. But the U.S. House is now considering a Farm Bill reauthorization that would do the opposite. It would be a step in the wrong direction for children, seniors and struggling families across Alabama.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a proven success with a long history of bipartisan support and a strong track record of reducing hunger, creating jobs and supplementing wages. But the proposed Farm Bill would erode our shared commitment to fighting hunger. Instead, it would punish people who have very low incomes by slashing SNAP for as many as 2 million Americans, including tens of thousands Alabama adults and their children.

This misguided move would increase hunger, deepen poverty and take a heavy toll on our state’s economy and budgets. The cuts would hit especially hard in rural communities, where some stores would close without SNAP income.

SNAP, often called food stamps, is the largest program in the Farm Bill. It helps more than 40 million Americans make ends meet and has lifted more than 8 million families out of poverty, including 195,000 Alabamians. In Alabama alone, SNAP benefits are spent in more than 5,000 stores and contribute $1.3 billion a year to the state economy.

With Alabama’s General Fund already struggling to pay for essential services like health care and prisons, the House plan would force the state to hire more SNAP eligibility workers and create expensive systems to track compliance with new work and child support mandates. It also would force Alabama to return to the costly, ineffective practice of verifying whether applicants have cars or other assets that might make them ineligible for SNAP.

The Farm Bill seeks to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Half of all adult SNAP participants without a disability are working, as are 60 percent of participants with children – often in retail, construction and other jobs with low wages, irregular or seasonal hours, and few benefits. In exchange for cutting their nutrition assistance, the House plan would create an underfunded employment and training system that would do little to help people actually find good-paying jobs.

The bill also would extend these stricter requirements to people who are now exempt. That would include nearly all participants with children ages 6 and over, as well as jobless Alabamians in their 50s – even though they often remain unemployed longer than younger people do, no matter how hard they look for work. Participants who cannot prove they have worked enough hours could be denied SNAP for one year or longer.

These proposed SNAP changes would hurt children, too. When parents lose food assistance because they can’t find a job or their work hours drop below an arbitrary minimum, their children are deprived of nutrition they need to grow and thrive. That makes it harder for children to succeed in school – and it’s simply cruel.

Another way the plan could hurt kids is by requiring single parents to “cooperate” with child support collection. Child support is critical to eliminating child poverty, and more than 70 percent of low-income custodial parents already receive child support services. But taking food off the table doesn’t help a parent pay child support; it only makes the family hungrier. The proposal also could put applicants who are victims of domestic violence or child abuse at greater risk, along with costing Alabama millions of dollars for additional child support administration.

Alabama’s congressional delegation will play an important role in Farm Bill reauthorization. Our representatives will vote on the plan when it reaches the House floor as soon as mid-May. Sen. Richard Shelby is the influential new chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. And Sen. Doug Jones is an important member of a bipartisan group of Senate moderates, some of whom are expected to offer their own version of the Farm Bill in the next few weeks.

Alabamians are caring people, and we have a shared responsibility to keep our neighbors from going hungry. As our state’s members of Congress consider the Farm Bill, we urge them to oppose any efforts to weaken SNAP’s ability to help struggling Alabama families keep food on the table.

Carol Gundlach is a policy analyst for Alabama Arise, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of congregations, organizations and individuals promoting public policies to improve the lives of low-income Alabamians. Email: carol@alarise.org.