When you hear the term "food insecurity" it does not mean worrying about running out of popcorn before the movie's over. In government-speak, it means hunger. Genuine hunger, as in not having enough food to feed your family, or doing without meals yourself. Thanks to the recession, the ranks of the hungry have almost doubled in the last few years.
On any given day, there are 47 million so-called "food insecure" people in the U.S. Almost half of them are kids. Seventy six percent of the households include a child, disabled person, or elderly person.
There's a lot of mythology about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, longhand for food stamps. One is that people on food stamps eat "high on the hog." Oh yeah? The benefit is $134 per month. That's $4.39 per day to buy three meals. Another fable says it all goes to racial minorities. Not so - almost half the recipients are non-Hispanic whites.
A third untrue tale is that recipients are just lazy people who don't want to work. Wrong again. Quite a few of them -- including many single moms -- work full time, but their wages are so low at places like Walmart and McDonalds they still need help feeding their families.
Food stamps have always been part of the farm bill. The bill has alwaysbeen a horse trade, re-authorized every five years The poor got food aid, and big agribusiness got ever-larger farm subsidies. But earlier this year the U.S. House decided to get cute and cut the food aid, while keeping over $195 billion in subsidies for corporate food giants and multimillionaire land owners who don't actually live on farms. The Senate passed its own version that retains food aid, but at a lower level than in the past.
Declaring the earlier cuts weren't enough, on Thursday the House stuck it in the Senate's face and voted to slash another $4 billion a year from food aid. It's looking like a standoff.
If the two chambers can't agree by the end of the the month (and it's a good bet they won't), a couple of things could happen. They might just pass a continuing resolution extending the old bill. So the hungry will get a little food money, while the fat cats will retain a lot of subsidies. If the Senate buckles and goes with the House bill that decimates food stamps, the program will have to be financed yearly -- perpetually at risk from Republican brinkmanship over the debt ceiling and threatened government shutdowns.
In the increasingly unlikely event food stamps are restored and a 5 year farm bill reaches the president's desk, the hungry lose anyway. A boost in benefits passed in 2009 as part of the stimulus evaporates in November, chopping $25 a month from four person families.
So here's a challenge for each member of the U.S. House who favors fat-cat farmers and corporations over food for the poor. Instead of a huge campaign contribution, ask big ag write you a check $134. Feed yourself on that -- and only that -- for the next month.
Then come back and tell us why food stamps are too generous.
Listen to the two minute radio commentary here: