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Correcting the record on SNAP

In a green-tinted picture, a farm vehicle is seen harvesting a field
Valerie Morris/Getty Images/Adobe Stock

Show me a congressional district anywhere in the country—urban or rural, red state or blue—and I’ll show you working families struggling to put food on the table, veterans who don’t know where their next meal will come from, and seniors skipping meals so they can afford to heat their home.

But looking after our fellow Americans is more than just a moral imperative. Even if you disagree with my view that food is a fundamental human right, hunger costs us. From lost productivity at work and in the classroom to the health care costs associated with malnutrition, research shows that hunger costs American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars every year.

As we enter the 2023 farm bill cycle, the House Agriculture Committee voted unanimously last week — Democrats and Republicans alike — to advance budget recommendations that don’t explicitly mention cuts to SNAP. But I still hear many of my colleagues repeating the same well-worn and dishonest rumors about this program.

So, I want to set the record straight. 

First, let’s look at who’s on SNAP. Forty three percent are children. Sixteen percent are elderly people. Ten percent are non-elderly adults with disabilities. The idea that somehow SNAP discourages work is ridiculous when you consider that over two-thirds of people on the program aren’t even expected to work.

But let’s dig deeper. Another critique I hear is that SNAP supports a culture of “government dependency.” Again, the facts show this is not true. Many folks on SNAP work minimum wage jobs, yet they make so little that they still qualify for benefits.

With limited, narrowly-tailored exceptions, everybody on SNAP between the ages of 16 to 59 who can work is subject to a strict work requirement. They must find or maintain a job, participate in workforce development programs, or not reduce hours in their current role. And for vulnerable adults who don’t have kids, there are even tougher restrictions to qualify for help. These requirements already pose an extreme hardship to folks who live in rural areas and lack transportation to job training centers or can’t pay for childcare.

Finally, the myth of SNAP recipients lounging on the couch enjoying champagne and caviar at taxpayer expense is just that: a myth. The average SNAP benefit in America works out to around $2 per person, per meal — hardly enough for a cup of coffee in some places and not anything near what conservative talking heads make it out to be.

We have to set the record straight and tell the truth about SNAP. Because for all the facts and figures out there, hunger is a political condition.

America is a land of abundance. Drive down any rural highway and you’re bound to come across acres and acres of corn, wheat, tomatoes, apples — all stretching to the horizon. Harvested by our incredible farmers and farm workers, that abundance has allowed us to become the richest, most powerful country in the history of the world.

Yet still, tens of millions of our fellow Americans do not know where their next meal will come from.

Find your nearest soup kitchen and ask the families waiting in line what they need.

They don’t want a handout. They want a government that actually gives a damn about them. And while they may walk out with a full stomach, the truth is that charity alone will not solve our national hunger problem.

If you need more proof, look no further than COVID-19. During one of the worst economic and public health crises in history, hunger increased. But it did not dramatically skyrocket. Why? Because Congress wisely approved expanded emergency allotments to SNAP, giving families extra purchasing power at the grocery store.

Those emergency allotments sadly ended last month. But the lesson is that when we invest in SNAP, giving more food assistance to those who need it most, fewer Americans go hungry. That means kids pay better attention in class, employees are more productive at work, farmers sell more fresh fruits and vegetables to local consumers, and working families get the leg up they need to get ahead. That’s how we lift people out of poverty—not by going after SNAP, but by strengthening it.

The bottom line is that the rhetoric of those seeking to cut this program does not reflect reality. It certainly doesn’t match the reality of everyday people in this country trying to feed themselves or their families.

Instead of more political bluster and lies, my Republican colleagues urging cuts ought to sit down with and listen to those struggling to put food on the table—listen to the hardships they face and the challenges they have overcome.

And then pull up a chair and work with Democrats to create a farm bill that listens to the people of this country by strengthening SNAP and giving dignity to all our families.

McGovern represents the 2nd District of Massachusetts and is a member of the House Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition and Oversight.

Tags 2023 Farm Bill

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