WHILE ATTENTION is focused on the symbolically important budget resolution windup, some congressional authorizing committees are getting down to the hard work of translating budget totals into actual program reductions. One of the first big social program battles will begin this week when the Senate Agriculture Committee marks up reauthorizing legislation for the food stamp program.
The administration's proposed $1.5 billion savings in next year's food stamp costs require congressional approval of changes in the law that would: reduce benefits for low-income children who receive free lunches at school, lower general income limits for food stamp eligibility and further restrict income deductions allowed in determining the number of food stamps received by each household. All of these provisions will work some degree of hardship on poor families. The school lunch provision is especially harsh since it will cause substantial benefit losses to more than 40 percent of food stamp households whose incomes are less than half the poverty level.
Not content with this, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Jesse Helms would actually triple the cuts proposed by the administration. In full effect, his proposals would take at least $4.5 billion a year from needy people while enormously complicating food stamp administration. The methods used include cutting benefits across the board by raising the proportion of income counted in determining benefits, lowering allotments for the aged, women and children (on the grounds that they can get by with less food than they are currently allowed), and discouraging participation among needy people who are short of cash or have transportation difficulties by reinstituting the requirement that stamps be purchased by all but the aged or disabled. Among the perverse effects of these proposals is that they would hit hardest the group of people also adversely affected by the administration's welfare cuts -- the working poor.
A sensible cost-saving compromise is being offered by nutrition subcommittee chairman Robert Dole. The Dole bill would adopt most of the administration's ideas, but not the school lunch provision. Sen. Dole has indicated that he will add alternative program reductions to meet the administration's savings quota.
Perhaps there are some additional savings that could be made without undue cost to the poor. But it is important to remember in the nutrition field, we are not dealing with programs of speculative or inconsequential benefit. Only a decade ago it was not hard to find children with swollen bellies, dim eyes and permanently impaired learning ability in this country's poverty pockets. Today, living conditions with respect to housing, education or job opportunities are no better, and even worse, in many of these same areas. But there is an important difference -- no one has to go to bed hungry anymore in the land of agricultural plenty.