The writer, of Lincoln, is the resident bishop of the Great Plains Area, which encompasses the United Methodist churches of Nebraska and Kansas.
Americans in diners and coffee shops, in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill, have been earnestly debating how serious — and how urgent — our nation’s deficit problem is.
There is broad consensus that we need to make some significant course corrections to avoid more serious fiscal problems in the years ahead. There’s less agreement on what those changes should be and how quickly they should be implemented.
Do we cut spending now? If so, where and how much? Do we raise additional revenue? If so, how? And how do we support economic recovery in the short term while ensuring solvency in the future?
These are big and important questions, and there is not enough space to resolve them once and for all. It is, however, important to shed light on proposals whose deficit savings would be minimal but whose human impact would be considerable.
The Improve Nutrition Program Integrity and Deficit Reduction Act (S. 458), introduced this month in the U.S. Senate, is one such proposal. The bill claims to “eliminate loopholes, duplicative programs, [and] unnecessary bonuses” and to target “waste, fraud and abuse.” Its target is a sadly familiar one: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). Sen. Mike Johanns has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill.
In human terms, S. 458, which would cut more than $36 billion from SNAP, would make it more difficult for Americans in need to apply for and receive critical nutrition assistance. It would lead to greater administrative costs for states, including Nebraska. In fact, the proposed changes could kick nearly 1 million Americans off the SNAP program and lead to low-income children losing free school meals. And these cuts would come in a time of continued economic uncertainty and stubbornly high unemployment.
Several months ago, more than 50 faith, civic and social service leaders in Nebraska signed a letter to Sen. Johanns, urging him to protect — not cut — programs vital to poor and hungry people in Nebraska and beyond. Bishops and denominational leaders (both Protestant and Roman Catholic), food pantry directors in Omaha and Lincoln and dozens more pastors and nonprofit leaders across the state joined in signing the letter.
Here is an excerpt:
“As leaders of our communities and congregations, we see and hear the stories of real people, our people, who receive federal nutrition assistance. We know those who would be negatively impacted by cuts to programs like SNAP. We also know that the nonprofit organizations we represent are doing all we can to meet the increasing need in our state, stretching our dollars and staff, and we still have to turn people away.
“Additional cuts to these programs would only increase the need in our state and therefore make our work more difficult. Such cuts would also increase future costs, as hunger and poverty disrupt community stability and lead to higher medical costs and lower educational and economic outputs.”
This letter has recently been updated to reflect our deep concern and opposition to S. 458 and to urge Sen. Johanns to reconsider his support for the bill.
Some 176,000 people in Nebraska participated in SNAP last year. Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 85 percent of SNAP households have incomes below the poverty line ($22,050 for a family of four) and 76 percent of SNAP households included a child, elderly person or disabled person. The benefits are going to those who need them.
It is true that spending and participation in SNAP have increased in recent years, but this is primarily due to the economic downturn and increased unemployment; that is, because the program works as intended and reaches the people it is supposed to.
The Congressional Budget Office projects that SNAP participation and spending will decline as the economy improves and the unemployment rate decreases. Clearly, now is not the time to cut nutrition assistance.
We believe protecting SNAP and rejecting S. 458 is the smart thing to do politically because it is the right thing to do morally and for the future of our state.