Melissa Harris-Perry, 5/18/13, 10:42 AM ET

The real scandal: Cutting food aid for the poor

Melissa Harris-Perry sends her “Open Letter” to Rep. Frank Lucas, Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, over reauthorization of the Farm Bill.

Slashing benefits for the hungry? Try focusing on jobs instead

Updated

This week, Congress finally caught up to one of those cans they kicked down the road last year. The Farm Bill—the piece of legislation that sets our national agriculture policy—must be renewed every five years. The Senate passed a version of the bill in June. But the Sept. 30 deadline came and went with no farm bill after GOP leadership refused to bring it to a vote in the House.

The sticking point? Disagreement over cuts to the program that accounts for nearly 80% of the farm bill’s costs—the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP—formerly known as food stamps.

Well, here we are again.

Congress has finally gotten around to reauthorizing the Farm Bill, and both chambers have put SNAP on the chopping block. The Senate Agriculture Committee is proposing a $4.1 billion cut. But the House version—as an enticement to deficit hawks to get on board—went five times farther with a $20.5 billion reduction in the program that feeds America’s hungry families.

So my letter this week is to the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

Dear Chairman Frank Lucas,

It’s me, Melissa.

I understand your job as committee chair is a lot like herding cats. So job well done on bringing your Republican colleagues to heel by offering them that huge slice of SNAP reduction catnip.

You can all rest well in the knowledge that—if your bill passes—the deficit will no longer be burdened by that $20 billion worth of excessive spending and government inefficiency.

Only, here’s the thing: SNAP has a 96% efficiency rate. By and large, it does exactly what it was intended to do—put food on the table for those who need it most.

I know you’re used to thinking about these things in terms of line items on a budget. But let’s be very clear about the people sitting around that table: More than 23 million households, more than 47 million individuals, and almost half of those individuals are children. And your bill would mean nearly two million fewer seats at that table.

Fewer families like Gale and Alfonso. This Philadelphia couple relies on SNAP to feed their five children, including their youngest—twin daughters. Put yourself in their shoes, Congressman Lucas.

Imagine if you had to explain to your three children and grandchild that they had to go to bed hungry because the deficit in the national budget is more important than the deficit of food on the table.

And it’s not like SNAP is even a worthy sacrifice for the altar of deficit reduction. Your cuts to SNAP will do very little to solve the nation’s long term fiscal challenges since spending on the program is expected to decrease, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s projections.

The dramatic increase in SNAP recipients between 2007 and 2011 is an indication that the program was responding to Americans who were struggling to feed their families during the recession and slow recovery.

Put simply, more people are using SNAP because there are more people facing poverty and unemployment.

Here’s a crazy thought—how about you and your colleagues in Congress do something about that. Because SNAP really doesn’t need you to interfere.

As the economy recovers, and  the number of Americans in need of help declines, so too will the growth in spending on SNAP. In the meantime, SNAP has been one of few reliable lifelines in our weak social safety net. It lifted 4.7 million families out of poverty in 2011, including 2.1 million children.

So here is my proposal, Congressman Lucas. No member of the U.S. Congress should be allowed to introduce a bill reducing SNAP benefits until you have personally taken the Food Stamp challenge. That means eating on a budget of about one dollar per person, per meal.  If you and all your colleagues can do that for a full month and still think we should cut SNAP, then feel free to introduce a reduction. Until then, just have a seat.

Sincerely,

Melissa

Slashing benefits for the hungry? Try focusing on jobs instead

Updated