Pope Francis and SNAP

As people of faith with deep and long-held commitments to helping poor and hungry people, we have been following the ministry of Pope Francis since his election last March with a deep sense of awe and gratitude for his leadership.  The Pope’s commitment to the most vulnerable members of society is evident from both his words and his actions. 

An inspiring example of this commitment is the Pope’s support for an upcoming campaign seeking an end to hunger.  Led by Caritas Internationalis, the humanitarian arm of the Catholic Church, this campaign will kick off with a global wave of prayer today, December 10, 2013.  In communities all over the world, Roman Catholics will unite with believers of all faiths to pray for the end of hunger at noon in local time zones—meaning that the “wave of prayer” will flow around the world as each time zone adds its voice.

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As former members of Congress, we believe that this call for global unity to end hunger once and for all could not happen at a more important time.  It is embarrassing that in the United States, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, 50 million citizens struggle to put food on their dinner tables.  We can end hunger in America, but to do so Republicans and Democrats in Congress most overcome their differences and work together in support of the tens of millions of Americans who desperately need their help.     

We were on opposite sides of the aisle when we served together in Congress, and we often disagreed on important issues.  But we’ve always agreed about the need help our fellow citizens who are struggling with hunger and poverty.  As negotiations continue this week between the Senate and the House of Representatives over their respective versions of the Farm Bill, we urge Congress to protect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from deep and harmful cuts that, if enacted, would significantly increase hunger in America.

SNAP, which many still refer to as the food stamp program, is one of the most effective anti-poverty tools that we have. It is a program that reflects our commitment as a nation to reducing hardship and protecting the most vulnerable of our citizens.  The version of the nutrition title of the Farm Bill that was passed by the House of Representatives in September is extremely harsh on SNAP: If it became the law of the land, this bill would make approximately $40 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next decade. According to reliable estimates, the suggested changes to the program would result in 4 to 6 million low-income people presently receiving SNAP losing access to this critical program. 

Make no mistake—these are not just numbers. Each of these 4 to 6 million people is a real human being, with real hopes, aspirations, triumphs and dreams. These are working families, whose modest incomes are already strained to the breaking point by high rent or child care costs. These are senior citizens, the disabled, children, and the underemployed. These are not the people who should shoulder the burden of the government’s need for increased fiscal responsibility. 

We know that many people are concerned about the expansion of SNAP over the last few years. However, the program only expanded because our economy experienced its worst recession in decades, and millions of Americans lost their jobs and fell into poverty.  The program functioned as it was designed—as a safety net for citizens who fall on hard times. As employment conditions improve, SNAP will naturally contract as the need for the program decreases across the country.

It is important to note that private charities such as food banks play a critical role in helping our most vulnerable citizens. However, all of the nation’s charities put together presently provide about $5 billion worth of food to Americans in need each year. The House’s version of the farm bill, in cutting $4 billion from SNAP every year for the next decade, would effectively cancel out 4 out of every 5 dollars private charities spend feeding hungry people.

As our economy continues its gradual recovery from the devastating 2008 recession, millions of families and individuals across the country continue to face a shortage of jobs or wages too low to enable them to purchase enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs. Congress must reject harsh cuts to SNAP to ensure that we are continuing to help our nation’s most vulnerable as they get back on their feet.  We embrace Caritas Internationalis’ call to pray for an end to hunger, but we must also supplement that prayer with actions that will help poor and hungry Americans in their time of need.

Walsh served in the House from 1989 to 2009 and Hall served from 1979 to 2002. Walsh is currently a government affairs counselor for K&L Gates, and Hall is the executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger.