“Are there no prisons? And the workhouses, are they still in operation?”
Is that what the government and the people of the United States are about to say to Americans who have such low incomes they need the government food stamp program to help them put food on their tables?
Most of all, is American society willing to let the 21 million American children – one quarter of all American children – who live in households that get food stamps endure, not just less to eat, but actual hunger?
You recognize the quotation above, I’m sure. It’s uttered with a contemptuous sneer by Charles Dickens’ unforgettable wealthy miser Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1938 film version of Dickens’ classic tale, “A Christmas Carol.”
In his story Dickens used the plight of poor children, especially the poor health of Tiny Tim, the youngest son of Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit, to dramatize the daily emergency the poor face—and the imperative that their well-being is all of humankind’s “business.”
That’s the imperative facing America now because the budget for the food stamp program is in danger of being severely cut back. That possibility, of course, will affect the 26 million adults in the program, too. But it’s most damaging and far-reaching impact will be on the children – those who constitute part of the future of American society.
So, especially this year, while Thanksgiving for millions of Americans remains its usual holiday of family cheer and an over-abundance of food, millions of food stamp recipients must anticipate they’ll have significantly less to eat this week – and next week, and the week after that, and …
The reason is twofold. First, on November 1 Congress let expire a provision of the 2009 economic stimulus package that had increased families’ and individuals’ monthly food stamp allotment to help them cope with the impact of the Great Recession. That crisis had produced a deluge of people – overwhelmingly, the newly jobless and the working poor – to need aid in buying enough food to eat. As a result, the number of food stamp enrollees soared from 26 million in 2007 to more than 47 million now.
That program’s expiration has reduced the amount individuals and families get: by $11 for one person to $36 for a family of four. The amounts seem small. But for food stamp recipients – the jobless, the disabled, the working poor – who have no financial cushion, the amounts can be the difference between eating and eating less – or not at all.
And now, as Congress considers appropriations for the farm bill, which includes the budget for the food stamp program (its official name is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), Democrats and Republicans in Congress have suggested two wildly-differing cost-cutting measures for the program. The truly-draconian Republican version would cut $40 billion from the SNAP over the next decade. The Democratic version proposes a $4 billion reduction.
Whichever version – or some legislative compromise that meets somewhere between those two poles – wins out, we should not look away from what it will produce.
Children will go hungry.
From voluminous research, we know that healthy eating helps infants and children properly develop their intellectual, social and emotional skills. Depriving infants and children of nutrients from healthy foods can undermine their ability to do well in school and be able to recognize and adjust to the codes of proper behavior as they grow up.
We know what hunger does to infants and children: it damages them, often for life.
And we know what not going hungry and eating healthy foods does to children: It gives them a chance to live productive lives.
Given the economic challenges America will face over the coming decades, isn’t the wise course to insure that those 21 million children whose parents or guardians receive food stamps continue to have as much chance as possible to contribute to the future American society?
After all, the benefits of combining pragmatism and compassion now are far better for America’s future than pretending that the costs of callousness will not come home to roost.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.