Food aid cuts: Morally wrong, bad public policy

By a slim margin yesterday, the House voted to slash nearly $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Under the proposal, state governments will have strong incentives to cut the program even more. The impact on children, seniors, the disabled and people who can’t find work will be devastating. Basic food support for up to 6 million Americans would be eliminated.

Many of the same lawmakers who tout the importance of “family values” and call themselves “pro-life” are advocating for these punitive policies that will undermine human life and dignity. One lawmaker from Tennessee who voted for SNAP cuts even referenced the Bible to justify his vote and lectured the poor about handouts – while taking more than $3 million in farm subsidies from the government over the past decade. As a Catholic pastor, I find this moral arrogance and callousness stunning. Jesus spent his ministry warning about greed, challenging hypocrisy and commanding his followers to feed the hungry.

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Churches and charities provide vital support to those in need, but resources are already stretched thin. Our congregations in Michigan simply can’t shoulder the load of additional poverty and hunger that SNAP cuts will bring. In my state, nearly 2 million low-income people will see food assistance cut when a temporary boost to SNAP expires in November. The cumulative reductions through next fall will total $183 million, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.

This is both morally wrong and fiscally unwise. SNAP is widely regarded as the nation's most effective anti-hunger program. It kept more than 4 million people from falling into poverty in 2011, according to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and reduced the number of children living in extreme poverty by half. The program is a modest source of help for struggling families – the average monthly benefit for each SNAP household in Michigan last year was $135. At the same time, these benefits helped inject nearly $3 billion into Michigan’s economy. SNAP isn’t a handout, it’s a lifeline and a crucial investment.

In a letter to Congress, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote that SNAP “helps relieve pressure on overwhelmed parishes, charities, food banks, pantries and other emergency food providers across the country who could not begin to meet the need for food assistance if SNAP eligibility or benefits were reduced." Over and over, I see church members and their families who work hard and even hold down two jobs but still have to choose between paying rent and feeding their kids. Minimum wage jobs do not pay enough to lift people out of poverty. Cutting off the lifeline of food support is cruel and morally indefensible.

Elected officials and citizens have a reasonable concern about our national debt. We must be prudent stewards of fiscal resources. However, it is irresponsible and reckless to squeeze savings from effective programs that help people from falling into poverty. If our government can spend billions on weapons programs, bail out banks that gambled away Americans’ retirement savings and give generous tax breaks to corporations, public officials entrusted to serve the common good must not leave behind hungry families.

Thelan is pastor of Cristo Rey Church in Lansing, Michigan.