By Steve Spires
As Congress continues to work on a new farm bill that will set agricultural and nutrition policy for the next five years, it is worth noting the importance of the bill not just to farmers, but to Louisiana’s families, children and the elderly.
One part of the bill in particular, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—commonly known as food stamps—provided essential support to 1 in 5 Louisianans last year, keeping families, children and seniors living near the poverty line from going hungry. SNAP is not meant to provide for all of a family’s food needs, but is a supplement that helps boost nutrition, as the name suggests. The average benefit is modest: $4.50 per day, per person.
But the farm bill proposed by the House of Representatives—and voted down narrowly this week—would cut $20.5 billion from the program over 10 years, reducing benefits for some and making other families ineligible altogether. Cuts of this magnitude would be devastating to Louisiana’s families and would increase economic hardship and food insecurity.
The Senate’s version of the bill, which passed on a bi-partisan vote, contains a less drastic cut of $4 billion to the food stamp program. This disparity in funding is likely to be the most contentious issue as the two chambers try to work out their differences before the current law expires at the end of September.
The food stamp program has been proven to help blunt the damaging effects of severe poverty on families, especially those with children. This is critical in a state like Louisiana, which has the nation’s third highest poverty rate and the fourth highest child poverty rate. Sixty percent of the families in Louisiana that receive food benefits have incomes below the poverty line, which is about $19,100 annually for a family of three. Eligibility is generally capped at 130 percent of the poverty line, about $24,800 a year for a family of three.
While food assistance can be critical to families with a parent who has lost their job, the vast majority of benefits flow to households that are headed by someone who works or held a job in the last 12 months. Most are raising children. Research has proven that adequate nutrition is essential to school performance and healthy child development. Common sense says that children who are hungry will have a harder time learning and succeeding.
Food benefits are administered by the states, but funded with federal dollars. Overhead costs are low, as are rates of fraud and misuse. While food stamp enrollment has increased significantly over the last five years, this is not a permanent trend as many critics suggest, but rather a predictable response to the Great Recession. As the economy continues to improve, enrollment will drop closer to pre-recession levels.
On the other hand, the deep cuts being pushed by the House would be devastating to the most vulnerable Louisianans—low-income families with children, seniors, and the disabled. Punishing unemployed adults who can’t find a job through no fault of their own and letting children go hungry is no way to control government spending, nor is it good for long-term economic growth.