SNAP Benefits Should Not be Used to Score Political Points. Food Insecurity is on the Line.
This piece originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News on March 6, 2023.
During President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address, a fascinating back-and-forth took place between the president and some House Republicans about whether to consider cuts to Social Security and Medicare in debt ceiling negotiations. Both sides seemed to agree that these critical programs must remain intact.
It seemed logical to assume this bipartisan agreement would extend to protecting other vital programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps nearly 42 million Americans feed themselves and their families.
Apparently, it’s not so simple.
In negotiations with Democrats and the Biden administration to avoid catastrophic federal default, some House Republicans are bartering slashes to the SNAP budget and additional work requirements for its beneficiaries in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. “We’re still looking at it,” Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, chairwoman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, told Politico.
Meanwhile, an estimated 10.2% of Americans face food insecurity, unsure of how they will put food on the table each day. They live in every congressional district in the country. The vast majority are working people in households with children and/or seniors. It is shameful that they would become a bargaining chip to politics.
Consider Charles, who lost his job as a truck driver a decade ago after suffering a stroke, and now subsists on disability insurance, barely covering health care for diabetes complications through Medicare. After his low-income senior housing rent and medical bills, he survives on $160 a month, supplemented by nearly $20 from SNAP.
Yet some in Congress are coldly using food insecurity to score political points in the debt ceiling fight. Americans like Charles rely on an average SNAP benefit of $230 per month to survive, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Further, these politicians are employing that strategy just as critical pandemic-era boosts to SNAP are expiring and inflation is stretching everyone’s budget. Here in Texas, many families who will be devastated by these cuts are still reeling from the havoc caused by the ice storm last month.
Yet Granger and at least six other Texas representatives in Congress seem not to care that their own constituents would suffer from further SNAP cuts. Nearly 4 million Texas residents rely on SNAP each month, and the expiration of SNAP pandemic boosts alone will mean $300 million in cuts, affecting Texans in urban and rural areas alike.
In the 1960s and 1970s, with a truly bipartisan commitment to ending hunger, Congress strengthened the food stamp program, expanding it from feeding 500,000 people in 1964 to 15 million people by 1974. The growth was so successful that hunger fell to 3%, a national crisis nearly eradicated. But starting with the Reagan administration in the 1980s and the age of disparaging tropes like the “welfare queen,” Congress began cutting federal assistance programs annually in a new blame game aimed at those forced to seek government support. Meanwhile, new restrictions on beneficiaries meant fewer people qualified for key programs like SNAP.
Americans today who rely on SNAP are experiencing the worst kind of budget deficit because they’re forced to choose between feeding their families or paying household bills each day. We cannot allow our elected officials to hold these food-insecure Americans hostage, as pawns in the ultrapartisan gamesmanship of the debt ceiling debate.
We need leaders on both sides of the aisle to stop the rhetoric and address the real concerns of all Americans, from the debt ceiling controversy in Washington to the ongoing crisis of hunger across America.
Sara Albert is a food law and policy consultant in Dallas and sits on the national board of directors of MAZON. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.