A Harvest for All

Nov 7, 2013

A Harvest for All

We reap a bountiful harvest.  Many Montana kitchens fill with aromas of applesauce simmering on stovetops and later, pumpkin pies and Thanksgiving turkeys.  We stock pantry shelves with garden bounty.  If nothing else, we sit down tonight to dinner and have the luxury of not thinking about hunger until the morning—most of us, that is.

Last Friday, however, the 131,000 Montanans who depend for some of their food on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—or SNAP, formerly called food stamps—saw the amount of money available to them dwindle, as increases from the 2009 government stimulus act expired.  Program benefits averaged just $1.40 per meal.  In Montana alone, the cuts adversely affect 55,000 children, 5,700 veterans, and 24,000 of the elderly and disabled.  Thirteen million dollars have been taken from the Montana economy.

Adding insult to injury, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would cut an additional $40 billion dollars over ten years from the $78 billion dollar program, effectively ending the benefit for four million Americans and kicking them into poverty.  The bill’s so-called reform measures include allowing states to condition benefits on applicants passing drug tests, and requiring able-bodied beneficiaries to work at least 20 hours per week.

How could this bill be at all justifiable?  Consider how Montana Representative Steve Daines defended his vote for this cut.  His justification relies heavily on how he frames the issue.  First, he uses statistics to appeal to a general dislike of growing government programs; he notes that SNAP has grown 150 percent since 2006 and asserts that his cut would be only 5 percent of that amount.  Then he frames this seemingly small cut as a means to correct other things that people dislike in government programs, namely, fraud and abuse.  Finally, to make sure he doesn’t look unsympathetic, he asserts that the truly needy won’t see their benefits cut.  So, that doesn’t sound too bad.  Who could be against cutting fraud, reducing government spending, while still helping the needy?

Daines’s defense is a classic example of framing an indefensible policy in terms of politically appealing values.  But the moral picture looks quite different when we consider additional facts.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates the House bill would deny SNAP benefits to approximately 3.8 million low-income people in 2014 and to an average of nearly 3 million people each year over the coming decade.  Those who would be denied benefits include some of our country’s poorest adults, many low-income children, seniors, and families that work for low wages.

The reason for the growth in SNAP is the Great Recession, which resulted in 15 percent of Americans living in poverty, with one in four children now in households that receive SNAP benefits.  Studies show that adequate nutrition for children improves their health and makes it less likely that they will need public assistance when they grow up.  Furthermore, economists estimate that every dollar received from the program results in $1.70 in economic activity, thereby saving jobs.

Now the House bill doesn’t look so good.  But perhaps someone might argue that despite the program’ benefits, feeding the hungry should be a matter of charity, rather than an obligation of government.  So do we have a moral obligation to feed the hungry with programs like SNAP?

Sad that we’re even forced to ask such a question.  Nevertheless, to those who would say that people should rely only on food banks or simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, I would argue that a just society is one that promotes equality of opportunity.  And that’s a matter of justice, not charity.  Justice requires creating the conditions under which people can thrive on equal footing.  That means adequate levels of security and public health, as well as access to education, health care, housing, and food.

Most of us are vulnerable to needing assistance with these basic human needs quite unexpectedly and undeservedly.  Lose your job at no fault of your own, and you will join up to 80 percent of Americans who, at one time or another, will be in poverty, unemployed, or near the poverty line.  Social Welfare Professor Mark Rank’s research indicates that poverty is usually the result of failures at economic and political levels rather than of individual faults.  “Poverty is an issue of us,” he concludes, “rather than an issue of them.”

That means it’s ultimately about the kind of people we are.  We should be people who respect human dignity and justice.  We should be an America where people don’t have to go hungry, or go without education or health care; where the wealthiest citizens and corporations aren’t given tax cuts at the expense of the poor, but willingly pay higher taxes to fulfill their obligations.  And we should be a community where the bountiful harvest is celebrated by all.

This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.