The holiday season is beginning, which means two things: Many Americans will eat too much, and many others won’t have nearly enough.
November will be tougher than usual for the hungry because it kicked off with a brutal blow to their already- meager food budgets, ensuring that 48 million men, women and children will be even hungrier this Thanksgiving.
That blow, which took effect Nov. 1, is the direct result of congressional action to prematurely cut special food stamp assistance. These benefits had been boosted in 2009 because families were struggling with the effects of the financial crisis. Although many families continue to struggle today, the increased aid has ended.
It is a testament to the powerlessness of America’s poor and our growing economic and political divisions that so little attention has been paid to this change — particularly by policymakers. To those affected, the impact is immediate and devastating, and it makes the pending farm bill, which outlines billions more in cuts, terrifying.
In the District alone, Nov. 1 cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) amounted to $15 million in lost benefits affecting more than 140,000 people. In Maryland, a cut of $82 million put 774,000 people at risk. In Virginia, $99 million was taken from 941,000 hungry people. These cuts represent 5.5 percent less food assistance for families with the lowest income. In real terms, that means a family of three just lost $29 per month from a budget that was paltry to begin with.
The District has the second-highest rate of food hardship among households with children, behind only Mississippi. Even before these cuts were initiated, SNAP recipients in the District were running out of their insufficient benefits before month’s end, making a charitable organization such as Martha’s Table an essential monthly destination. For a family of four, this cut is the equivalent of taking away 21 meals per month.
At this time of year, many fortunate Americans recognize and respond to hunger with generous donations to food drives, including Thanksgiving turkey drives. This generosity is wonderful, and the nation’s network of pantries and food banks is a precious resource, but we need to keep its reach in perspective. The SNAP program provides about 20 times as much help as the entire charitable food network. That means when SNAP benefits are cut by 5 percent, charitable organizations have to double their contributions across the nation to keep up.
In reality, there is no way that charitable efforts can quell the ongoing hunger of Americans who are now expected to live on SNAP benefits averaging less than $1.40 per person per meal. Churches and food banks will be the first to say that they simply cannot cover recent and proposed cuts. In the District, Martha’s Table’s food budget is $1 million for the entire year. We cannot possibly make up for $15 million in cuts.
Americans can end this hunger. We must acknowledge the devastation caused by these SNAP cuts and oppose further reductions. In addition to donating turkeys, let us advocate change. People earning low wages and those without jobs or adequate retirement or disability benefits cannot afford to purchase food, pay rent and utilities and meet the other necessities of life. In the long term, Americans need a higher minimum wage, more job training and creation, affordable housing, and stronger income supports such as unemployment insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits and child-care subsidies.
In the near term, here is what can be done this month: First, Americans need to remind Congress that any proposals to cut SNAP further are unacceptable. Second, we must implement an outreach strategy that mitigates the harshness of SNAP cuts by helping more people get the public benefits that are available. Third, those who are able should increase their charitable giving — in money and in food. Then we all should enjoy our Thanksgivings, knowing that while some people will eat too much, we worked to reduce the number who won’t have nearly enough.