Commentary - August 2nd, 2013
2:34 pm
Fri August 2, 2013

Food Stamps Work for Montana

One of these days I am going to get on the radio and talk about how Congress has really put partisan politics aside and gone back to the good ol’ days of legislating - coming together to invest in programs and services that make our families and communities stronger. Well, today is not one of those days. Today, I get to talk about the newest ideological debate - whether we make sure that our neighbors don’t go to bed hungry - today we get to talk about food stamps.

Food stamps, officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP is the most important anti-hunger program in the US. Most of the folks who get SNAP are children, elderly, or people with disabilities. Over 80% of Montana households with SNAP, have incomes below the poverty line (the poverty line for a family of four is $23,500) and almost 40% of households are in deep poverty, with incomes at or below half of the poverty line.

Food stamps have historically been part to the Farm Bill and after the Senate passed the Farm Bill this summer, the House picked up the baton and effectively broke it in half, removing the nutrition and hunger parts of the Farms Bill, while giving the go-ahead to billions in farm subsidies.  

Since the 1970s, the idea was to tie the food stamps and nutrition portions that help low-income folks to farm subsidies that mostly benefit large agribusiness and wealthy farmers, bringing together urban and rural needs, creating bedfellows just strange enough to make lawmakers work together, until now. Last month House Republican voted to split the two portions. The expectation was that they could use this opportunity to make deep cuts to the program, and low and behold Republicans  announced yesterday that they want to cut $40 billion from SNAP.

One out of every eight Montanans benefits from food stamps, with an average monthly benefit of $127 per person. It is one of the only programs that is available to all low-income, low-wage earners - and is an important hand-up for those who are underemployed. In fact, during the great recession, the number of individuals and families accessing SNAP increased sharply as people lost jobs or saw their hours cut. This quick response and increase in participation in SNAP is ironically one of the reasons that opponents want to cut the program.

SNAP is widely considered one of the most effective and quick responding programs to a recession, not only does it make sure that a parent whose hours are cut is still able to put dinner on the table, but it put money straight into local economies. You see, when you are a low-income family you pretty much spend every single dollar each month just to get by. So if you receive food stamps, you still going to be spending every single dollar, because you still need to put gas in the car, or get on the bus, and buy your kids clothes.

Food stamp dollars get out to people and into the local economy quickly and it is estimated that for every dollar spent through SNAP, it generates at least $1.70 in economic activity – literally, bang for the buck. In 2012, SNAP benefits infused about $193 million into our state economy.

It is probably important to talk a bit about what food stamps will get you because opponents have done a great job of racializing and stigmatizing people who access the program and what these folks are buying. Food stamps will just get you food, not hot food from the deli counter, not Burger King, good ol’ grocery store food. It won’t buy you toilet paper, diapers, dish soap, tampons, or tooth paste – as if we need those things anyway. And for the record, the majority of food stamp recipients are white.

SNAP provides enough benefits so that an individual or family can afford the USDA “Thrifty Food Plan,” a bare-bones diet. If you actually read the plan, you will see that it took six people with PhDs to come up with a way for a low-income person to get a nutritious and balanced diet on what amounts to about $4.25 a day here in Montana. “Thrifty” is perhaps an understatement.

So, as alluring as this get rick quick, get onto food stamps plan sounds, it is simply untrue. For one, the average per person, per month benefit here is Montana is $127.00, or just $4.25 a day, or $1.41 per meal, not exactly living high on the hog.

Most people, who are on SNAP and can work, do. And finally, SNAP is one of the most efficient and effective programs out there – with much less fraud than say farm subsidies.

SNAP works for Montana. Unfortunately, our lone Representative Steve Daines hasn’t been. He voted with his Republican caucus last month when the Farm Bill was divided and will soon vote on the proposed $40 billion in cuts. It is time to work for Montana, to stand up to his caucus and to oppose any cuts to the program. So call him: 926-2122. 

But he should also go beyond that, as a freshmen legislator and a successful businessman, he should invest some time understanding what it means to get by on just $4.25 a day. I would like to challenge Representative Daines to take the SNAP Challenge and live for a week like the 1 in 8 Montanans who accesses food stamps. Many in the US House have already taken the challenge, including some from his caucus. I’ll even do it with him - Representative Daines, me, and the 129,000 other Montanans who rely on food stamps to make ends meet, everyday.

I’m Olivia Riutta with Montana Women Vote. Thanks for listening and have a fabulous weekend.

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