Monday, December 9, 2013
Special to the Press Herald
WASHINGTON — This week we head back to Washington to deal with another manufactured budget crisis that threatens our economic recovery and puts the well-being and livelihoods of millions of Americans at risk.
In a climate that has increasingly put political maneuvering and radical ideology before the needs of our country, this, sadly, has become the norm. But what happened last week was especially bad, even by these standards.
We were disappointed to see the House pass $40 billion in cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly food stamps). These were double the cuts House Republicans tried to push through earlier this year, because, apparently, those weren't deep enough for some.
These drastic cuts not only threaten the likelihood of reauthorizing a farm bill this year -- critical legislation that a huge part of our economy depends on -- but also take food out of the mouths of millions of Americans.
Right here in Maine, about 250,000 people receive food assistance, or nearly 1 in 5 people in our state. Two-thirds of recipients are families with children, and half have at least one person working full-time. Others are seniors on fixed incomes, disabled veterans and those who can't find employment because there still aren't enough jobs to go around. These are the people these cuts will affect. These are our neighbors.
In total, the legislation would take food assistance away from 4 million people, not only by prohibiting states from covering the unemployed in hard-hit areas, but also by actually giving the states a financial incentive to cut people from the program.
If you listen to our colleagues trying to justify these cuts, they will claim that overly generous SNAP benefits are going to people who abuse the system and who could otherwise walk out their door and find a job without an issue. (They tend not to mention the veterans, seniors and children that these cuts will affect.)
But the truth is that SNAP has a historically low rate of abuse and has been absolutely essential in helping keep families and individuals above water during the worst jobs crisis since the Great Depression.
For Matt Westerlund of Sanford, SNAP benefits served as a critical lifeline for his family of four when his son got sick and his work hours were reduced.
"Without food stamps, we either would have gone hungry or been kicked out of our house," he told the Portland Press Herald recently.
It's true that our economy is starting to make gains, but our colleagues are sorely mistaken if they believe that people aren't struggling to find work or put food on the table today.
As for how "generous" these benefits are, on average in Maine, they amount to $130 per month. But most Americans spend more than that on food per week.
Per meal, the benefit is about $1.50. While that's not quite enough to get you a large cup of coffee in a Capitol Hill cafeteria, it makes a real difference for families receiving SNAP benefits.
We're proud of how our communities, churches and nonprofits continue to rise to the challenge of helping to provide essential services to Maine people during these tough economic times. But they continue to deal with an unprecedented demand.
In Portland, for example, Preble Street has seen the number of meals served at its soup kitchen rise by 60 percent in the last three years, to 1,100 meals every day -- even while sequestration and other cuts have hurt the agency's ability to meet demand.
The issue of hunger and food security in America shouldn't be a political issue -- it should be something that we all come together to address. Unfortunately, some congressional leaders in Washington don't think like the rest of America.
While it's likely asking too much of leaders in the House, we're hoping that cooler heads will prevail and that we won't be facing more political games when it comes to making sure Mainers can feed their families.
As Congress reconvenes this week, it's facing a tight deadline on some serious issues. We need to pass the farm bill (including SNAP benefits) and a government-wide funding bill. The last thing we need is a government shutdown caused by interparty politics -- then everybody loses, not just the hungry.
But the clock is ticking. We need to get all of this done before October.
We're hoping for a break from the norm. The needs of our country must come first. Party politics should take a back seat.
Reps. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, and Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, represent Maine in the U.S. Congress.