Andrew Morehouse can envision several likely outcomes to the battle over the federal food assistance program that’s now playing out in Congress. None of them is good.
Last week, the Senate approved a federal farm bill that will cost $955 billion over the next 10 years and includes $4 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, over that time period. Now the legislation moves to the House, where even more drastic SNAP cuts—$20.5 billion over 10 years—are proposed. Once the House passes its own version (at deadline, it looked as if a vote could happen as early as this week), a compromise bill will be hashed out in a conference committee.
“I hope to God it’s neither of them,” Morehouse said last week, as he considered the competing Senate and House proposals. Any cut to SNAP, he said, will lead to a dramatic increase in the number of people turning to already overburdened food pantries and other assistance programs. Morehouse, the executive director of the Food Bank of Western Mass., knows how hard it is to meet the current demand for food assistance. If the proposed cuts, which he calls “draconian,” pass, “it’s going to get really ugly,” he said. “Everyone in our communities across Western Mass. will feel the impact of it.”
SNAP is the largest food assistance program in the country. It’s administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and funded through the farm bill, an omnibus piece of legislation that sets key agriculture and conservation policies for the country.
SNAP is the biggest farm bill program by far. It accounts for about three-quarters of total spending, making it an irresistible target for lawmakers looking to cut government expenditures. It’s also grown steadily in recent years, a reflection of the still-struggling economy. In fiscal 2011, 44.7 million Americans received SNAP benefits, according to USDA figures; the next year, that number increased to 46.6 million. As of early June, 47.6 million people, in 23 million households, were receiving SNAP benefits. On average, they received $133.44 per person, or $276.15 per household, in monthly benefits.
In Massachusetts, 900,000 people—one in seven—receive SNAP benefits, said Morehouse. In the four western counties that the Food Bank serves, 166,000 people, or 85,000 households, rely in the program.
In addition to the $4 billion in SNAP cuts, the Senate version of the farm bill includes changes to some eligibility rules and eliminates the so-called “heat and eat” provision that allows states to link SNAP and heating assistance programs. While Massachusetts’ Democratic senators, Elizabeth Warren and William “Mo” Cowan, spoke out in favor of SNAP, both ultimately voted for the bill. The day after the vote, Cowan, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Food and Agricultural Research, lamented the SNAP cuts and called for that funding to be restored in the final version of the bill. Still, he said, the farm bill will help Massachusetts through several important provisions he promoted, including supports for local food markets and for fishermen.
The House version of the farm bill calls for more sweeping changes to the SNAP program. In addition to the $20.5 billion cut in spending over the coming decade, it also would alter eligibility requirements and benefits. According to a memo prepared by the Mass. Law Reform Institute, if the House version passes, more than 50,000 households in Massachusetts would lose their SNAP benefits, while another 100,000 would see their monthly benefits reduced by about $70 a month.
SNAP, Morehouse said, “really has a tremendous impact on people’s lives,” particularly the most vulnerable members of society: children, the elderly, the disabled. The recent economic downturn, as well as the steady decline in workers’ real incomes over the past several decades, has expanded the pool of people who rely on food aid, like SNAP and food pantries. “Households are at a breaking point,” Morehouse said. “People who criticize government benefit programs say, ‘Leave it to the market.’ Well, we’d like to leave it to the market, but the market isn’t doing its job.”
The program, Morehouse added, helps more than just recipients. It also has broader economic benefits, funneling money to food sellers, from supermarkets to local farmers who accept SNAP payments at farmers’ markets. “It’s an important federal anti-hunger program that’s been proven over time. It works, and it benefits the economy,” he said. “The last thing we should be doing is cutting SNAP. We need to be increasing SNAP benefits.”
Right now, though, supporters of SNAP are fighting just to keep the program level-funded. Among those leading that fight are Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat whose 2nd Congressional District includes a large portion of the Valley, including Amherst, Greenfield and Northampton.
In February, McGovern launched an “End Hunger Now” campaign; since then, he’s delivered more than a dozen speeches on the House floor calling for the protection of SNAP funding. Last week, he, along with about two dozen other House members, signed on for the “SNAP Challenge,” agreeing to spend a week living on the budget of an aid recipient. (Stacey Monahan, interim commissioner for the Mass. Dept. of Transitional Assistance, and John Polanowicz, the state’s secretary of health and human services, also participated.)
McGovern has been working with the activist group Progressive Democrats of America, which is pressing others in the party to stand up for the program. At deadline, PDA was organizing rallies, scheduled for June 17, at the district offices of a number of Democratic House members, including the Springfield office of Rep. Richie Neal of Massachusetts’ 1st Congressional District. (Events were also planned at the offices of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, among others.) Participants will call on those legislators to support an amendment sponsored by McGovern that would eliminate the proposed SNAP cuts. The rallies will also draw attention to the fact that, at the same time it’s considering deep cuts to the nutrition program, the House is also considering increasing military spending by more than $5 billion. In addition, PDA plans “letter drops” this week at Congressional offices, calling on members to support SNAP.
PDA hopes those efforts will inspire Democratic legislators in positions of power to work with McGovern to save SNAP funding, Tim Carpenter, PDA’s national director and a Florence resident, told the Advocate. “Where’s the Democratic leadership on fundamental moral issues?” he asked.
McGovern was not available for comment at deadline. In a recent interview with In These Times, he criticized both Republicans for their hostility toward social welfare programs and fellow Democrats who remain on the sidelines of the SNAP fight. “If the Democratic Party doesn’t stand with the poor and the vulnerable, then I don’t know what the hell we stand for,” McGovern said.
If House members don’t vote to restore SNAP funding, Carpenter said, McGovern will move to kill the entire farm bill.•