Look to history before making SNAP program cuts
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Like many families at the time, House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Defense: Latest on spending fight - House passes stopgap with defense money while Senate nears two-year budget deal | Pentagon planning military parade for Trump | Afghan war will cost B in 2018 House passes stopgap spending measure with defense money MORE’s family emigrated to America from Ireland to escape the Potato Famine.  

Though Ireland was part of the prosperous United Kingdom, and exported huge amounts of food to England, over less than a decade beginning in the mid-1840’s, a million people in Ireland died and another million emigrated as a result of the crisis. The government did nothing to ensure relief to the lowest earning citizens. In fact, during the years of the Famine, cultivation of crops in Ireland increased by over a million acres in order to feed the wealthy in the United Kingdom.   

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Now a professor at Northwestern University, I spent the first six years after university working in Ireland where the lessons of hunger in a time of wealth still resonate after more than 160 years. The great historian of Irish history, F.S.L. Lyons, wrote that the Famine “still remains an appalling phenomenon” that has affected “all the generations that have lived in Ireland since those terrible years.” Part of the pain emanates from the disparity between the rich and poor.  

 

In a move with parallels too similar not to compare about the disparity between rich and poor, the recently released Trump budget aims to cut food stamps by approximately 193 billion over the next ten years, cutting 25 percent of the cost. And, we need only look to the circumstances under which the food stamp program was originally created to draw further parallels and take heed of history’s lessons.

When the first pilot program started under Kennedy, it was patterned on a Great Depression program that fed over 20 million people when more food was produced in the United States than could be eaten, yet many couldn’t afford to buy it.

In 2005, 26 million people per month were active in the program, or SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Now there are 42 million recipients with average benefits of $125 per month.  

Forty percent of participants on food assistance experienced a decrease in earnings prior to entering the program. Half of the participants are on the program for a year or less while the other half of the participants receive the benefits for a much longer time with changes in income mainly determining the status of entering or exiting the program.

The federal program, administered by state agencies with local personnel, to be sure, is mired in misconceptions and narratives of apathy and enabling. But the facts speak for themselves: benefits are managed on an electronic card which can be used to buy food or seeds/plants for a food garden, and excludes alcohol, medicines, tobacco and fast foods. Further, there may be time limits for assistance if recipients aren’t employed and do not have dependents. And, although some are on welfare, the majority who use SNAP are people who earn below the poverty level.

My own father, the son of immigrants, who prized education and would later endow a foundation for students to attend college, once explained to me the food stamp program was the reason he was a lifelong Democrat. Simply, he said the program ensured people couldn’t go hungry in a country where there was poverty. For my father, a wealth of food and a poverty of sustenance was the ultimate ill. What was government for, he reasoned, if not to ensure that no one went to bed hungry?  

We think of The Great Famine as a shameful episode in history, and the narrative of the U.S. government giving assistance to hungry people during the Great Depression is a largely accepted and unquestioned one. And, indeed, government’s role is to ensure a safety net for all people. So, now, just as then, let’s be sure that we feed those who live within our borders.  

After all, sustenance is not a privilege; it is a right.

Candy Lee is a Professor at Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. She teaches courses in Leadership Strategies and is an NU Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. 


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