Commentary: SNAP has helped millions of families — including mine
By Raja Krishnamoorthi
For families struggling with a temporary setback, or for working parents struggling to break the cycle of poverty, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program is the make-or-break program that ensures children don’t go to bed hungry.
I know this firsthand because I was once one of the children who benefited from SNAP’s predecessor, the food stamp program.
This week, the U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote on the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, better known as the farm bill, which would slash SNAP by $23.3 billion while potentially stripping eligibility from millions of people SNAP helped feed last year.
Families earning less than 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold — $32,630 for a family of four — are eligible to receive SNAP benefits. Two out of three people receiving food assistance are children, the disabled or the elderly. All told, SNAP offers families an average of $1.40 per meal per person.
When I was an infant, my father was continuing his education so that our family could embrace all the opportunities of America. But despite my family’s best efforts, there was some struggle. When my family needed help, the American people and their government generously provided it.
Today, my father is an engineering professor, my brother is a doctor and I am honored to serve in the U.S. Congress. My family’s story is the American Dream: the promise of a middle-class life with the opportunity for your children to have an even better life than you did.
Our dream was possible because of my parents’ hard work and the opportunities our country creates. But it was also possible because the American people established programs like SNAP so my family could be sustained during a temporary time of significant need. For families like mine and millions of others, SNAP and its predecessors have served as a critical social safety net and allowed us to bounce back from financial adversity and achieve our dreams.
While many of the families on SNAP today face obstacles similar to those faced by my family, they will encounter them with a more punitive, less helpful anti-hunger program if the farm bill becomes law.
This bill — expected to come up for a House vote this week — would significantly impair SNAP through large cuts engineered under the pretext that SNAP discourages people to work. While the bill’s advocates claim they’re redirecting its focus to help families rejoin the workforce, this is simply not the case.
For most families on SNAP, the program is still a temporary safety net. The average SNAP recipient uses the program for only 10 months. SNAP’s critics claim it discourages work, but a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows otherwise. The study found that 87 percent of SNAP households with a working-age, nondisabled adult had a participant working in the year before or after their time on SNAP; more than 60 percent were working while receiving SNAP. Fundamentally, SNAP serves as a short-term fallback for families facing adversity through unemployment or underemployment.
The farm bill, which would take effect in 2021, would institute new work requirements on the program, even though SNAP already requires most able-bodied participants to work or train for a job at least 20 hours a week. The difference is that under the new plan, the accountability measures, which currently are run by the states, would be run by expensive and hastily assembled federal bureaucracies. Under the proposed changes, the first failure to meet a work requirement for a single month — or any error in SNAP paperwork — could lead to a 12-month disqualification from the program. A second failure would trigger a three-year ban.
The program supposedly would provide job training to help SNAP beneficiaries get back on their feet. Unfortunately, the bill’s funding for these efforts is a pittance. The farm bill dedicates $7.65 billion for federal job training grants, but those grants are to be distributed over 10 years. With 3 million people a month in need of job training slots, according to projections by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the farm bill is budgeting less than $30 per participant for job training each month.
My experiences, as a child on food stamps and as an adult running small businesses, have forged my belief in anti-hunger programs and the power of work. No anti-poverty program can outweigh the value of a job, but the farm bill before the House this week would deepen poverty rather than relieve it.
The United States cannot and should not use hunger as a means of coercion against anyone, let alone its own people.
Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi represents the 8th Congressional District of Illinois.