Cupboards will be bare next year for nearly 4 million people in the United States if the bill cutting the food stamp program, which was passed by the Republican majority in the House on Sept. 19, becomes law. They voted to cut this life-saving program by $40 billion over 10 years.
The bill would deny food aid to poor adults, including 170,000 veterans. Cut off would be 1.7 million jobless adults living in high-unemployment regions, as well as 2.1 million people in low-income families, most with underpaid working adults and/or low-income seniors. About 210,000 children in these families would also lose free school lunches. Some unemployed parents who can’t find jobs would lose benefits, which would affect their children.
Some state governments are already following suit, moving to limit food stamp eligibility, including in jobless areas, and imposing stringent tests.
Besides whatever Congress eventually votes to cut, there will also be a 13 percent reduction in benefits for all recipients when a section of the 2009 stimulus package ends in November. This will hurt millions; for instance, a family of four will lose $36 worth of food per month.
In the House vote, wealthy Congress members increased the gigantic sums allotted to agribusiness companies, and then separated food stamps from the farm bill so they could make deep cuts. Yet, these politicians of the superrich, who think nothing of spending thousands of taxpayer dollars a year on lavish dinners, are aiming vile attacks at food stamp recipients, yelling “fraud” and “abuse” and excoriating them to “go get a job” — as if the economic crisis and lack of livable-wage jobs were their fault.
The politicians who voted to increase hunger represent the richest 1% of the 1%, the ruling class. They are on an offensive to gut essential safety net programs won by workers’ movements, including unemployment insurance, so they can transfer more government money to the super-rich banks through interest payments and bailouts, all while satisfying the Pentagon thirst for weapons and war funds.
The Democrats voted against the House resolution. Allegedly, they will block such a dire cutback in the Senate, where they hold a majority.
If the Democrats are serious, they can still vehemently oppose these cuts in every way possible. They could filibuster, as Sen. Wendy Davis did recently to oppose cuts in reproductive health services in Texas, refusing to agree to any cutbacks or compromises. They could walk out en masse in protest.
However, Democrats already agreed in June to allow food stamp cuts of $400 million a year over the next five years. And it was a Democrat, President Bill Clinton, who pushed the so-called “welfare reform” act in 1996 that severely rolled back public assistance benefits and restricted food stamp eligibility. It also denied food aid to most documented immigrants, who had been eligible.
Vital benefits under siege
Any cuts to food stamps are an attack on the working class, especially the poorest people, who need food aid for survival and health.
The Census Bureau reports that nearly 47 million people — 15 percent of the population and 22 percent of those under 18 — lived in poverty in 2012. On Sept. 4, the Department of Agriculture stated that last year 49 million people lived in households where some members didn’t get enough to eat due to lack of funds, despite many getting food stamps.
Last year, a near record 47.76 million people got food benefits averaging $133 a month — about $1.40 per meal. Half were children and teenagers living in low-income families, many with an underpaid employed parent; 10 percent were seniors; others were people with disabilities; some unemployed adults and veterans.
With the benefits, many people are just scraping by. Without them, millions would face worse hunger and hardships, including serious health problems. As it is, many parents skip meals so their children can eat. The Children’s Defense Fund asked on Sept. 19 how Congress could dare cut this aid for children when the Census Bureau reports that “child poverty rates remain at record highs and Black, Hispanic and children under six suffer the most.”
Some 5 million of those over 60 don’t get enough to eat — mostly women, African Americans and Latinos/as, rural dwellers and others with low incomes, says the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.
People’s movements won food stamps
From 1939 to 1943, a modest Food Stamp Program — where workers bought stamps discounting food prices — resulted from mass struggles during the Great Depression. Then, in 1964, the Food Stamp Act was passed, along with Medicaid, Head Start and the Job Corps. These programs were won by 1960s mass movements, including the strong Civil Rights Movement. The FSP was expanded in 1974, then again in 1977, when stamps were distributed free. But they were restricted in Clinton’s war on the poor in the 1990s. In 2008, the FSP was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, food stamps have become crucial. The number of recipients rose from 26 million in 2007 to nearly 48 million now. Millions of people who worked before the crisis still can’t find jobs or are now involuntarily underemployed and/or underpaid.
Yet, with racist, sexist and classist demagogy, the wealthiest 1% contemptuously blame the workers, including the poorest, for increasing food stamp enrollment. The “recovery” has increased their riches, but nothing has “trickled down” to the workers. Economic inequality has skyrocketed.
According to Mark Bittman in the July 26 New York Times, “The recession killed 60 percent of $15-$20-an-hour jobs. … Around 20 percent have returned, but the rest are being replaced by those paying less than $13 an hour. Thus median income for working-age households fell more than 20 percent from 2000 to 2010.”
Clearly, food stamps are still crucial to the unemployed and millions who have jobs but pay exorbitant housing, medical and other costs. Some 14 percent of food industry workers, who average $9.65 an hour, rely on food stamps to help feed their children.
‘Food is a right’
Workers World Party has supported successful lawsuits to force the federal government to release warehoused surplus food, and it initiated distributions of produce, under the slogan “Food is for people, not for profit.” In the early 1970s in Buffalo, N.Y., party members in Women United for Action helped obtain tons of surplus apples and potatoes — donated by farmers who otherwise would have destroyed them, because they couldn’t be sold profitably — and distributed them free to people hit by plant closings, wage freezes and high prices.
Under capitalism, food is a commodity. Although it is plentiful – on farms, store shelves and restaurant tables — millions can’t afford to buy it. There is more than enough to satisfy everyone’s health and nutritional needs. WW says “Food is a right” and every person is entitled to sufficient, nutritious food. Ultimately, WW stresses, food should be free to all; it’s a basic human right.
SNAP benefits should be expanded, not cut, along with Meals on Wheels and Women, Infants and Children food programs. It took a strong, unified struggle to win these benefits, and a fightback would galvanize the forces needed to stop the cutbacks.