Churches won’t be able to make up the difference, says U.S. bishops’ policy adviser
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
“Last month, in Johnson County alone, we served close to 6,000 individuals,” said program operations director Kim Brabits. “We saw a dramatic rise in the number of individuals coming in for food.
“And my guess is they knew their food stamps were going to be cut in November, and so they were preparing for those cuts.”
They were right.
A reduction in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) took effect this month when a temporary boost to the program, part of the 2009 Recovery Act, came to an end.
More than 300,000 people in Kansas were impacted by the reduction, most of them children, the elderly and the disabled.
On average, families now have less than $1.40 to spend per person, per meal. It’s difficult to stretch that amount through a whole month, so more participants are turning to food banks for assistance.
Typically, they’re families with children.
“Both parents are working lower- paying jobs,” said Brabits. “They’re the working poor, making just enough to scrape by, but not enough to save.”
Recipients are allowed only one visit to the food pantry a month — and they’re very limited on how many provisions they can get because supplies are so low.
As food pantries across the nation struggle to keep up with the demand, members of Congress negotiating the farm bill, which includes SNAP, are trying to decide how much more they can cut the program.
The Senate has passed a version of the Farm Bill that cut an average of $400 million a year from SNAP — $4 billion over a decade. The House wants to cut 10 times that amount.
“The reduction that happened on Nov. 1 was a reduction in the amount families get on their monthly allowance,” said Brabits. “With either the House bill or Senate bill, we’ll actually see people not being able to receive food stamps.”
If the proposed cuts happen, food banks will be hit even harder.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is very clear about how it stands on the issue. The bishops have urged Congress not to accept proposed cuts, stating that the Catechism of the Catholic Church says it is the proper role of government to “make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life.”
Their plea echoes Pope Francis’ message for World Food Day, in which he said, “It is a scandal that there is still hunger and malnutrition in the world,” and called for “a just and lasting solution.”
Anthony Granado, policy adviser for the USCCB Office of Domestic Social Development, explained that the bishops understand the importance of national fiscal responsibility. But they also believe the federal budget “should not be balanced on the backs of poor and hungry people.”
SNAP accounts for less than two percent of the federal budget — $81 billion of a total $3.5 trillion in spending.
“We advocate there are areas where there are savings that don’t touch programs that help poor and vulnerable people,” said Granado. “There are other areas in the Farm Bill — other areas in the federal budget — where you can find the savings.”
One of the refrains Granado often hears is that charitable organizations — particularly churches — can care for the poor that government cuts leave behind.
“That’s mathematically impossible,” he said. “Churches and the charities participate in the same economy as everybody else.
“When there’s a downturn in that economy, there’s a downturn in giving and an increase in need.”
Since the recession began, food bank demand has increased nearly 50 percent, while 34 percent of Ameri- cans admit they’ve cut back on donations.
“Basically for every $96 the federal government spends on nutrition programs annually,” said Granado, “the private sector spends $4.
“So it’s just not mathematically possible to say we’re going to end these programs and let the churches take over.”
Granado acknowledged the economy is slowly recovering and some jobs are being created, but not quickly enough to warrant a reduction in benefits to the poor.
“You still have roughly five or six people for every one job available,” he said. “It comes down to what we are doing in our economy to promote family-wage jobs.”
The church advocates self-sufficiency as an important part of human dignity. But it acknowledges that, in order for people to become independent of government subsidies, jobs with adequate pay must be made available.
Granado also addressed the claim that SNAP is replete with waste, fraud and abuse.
“This is actually statistically untrue,” he said. “SNAP has consistently shown error rates are at an all time low.”
As a matter of fact, SNAP has one of the lowest error rates of any federal program — 3.8 percent in 2011, and that was due mostly to caseworker error, often resulting in underpayments.
“If the rest of the federal government had an error rate at that level,” said Granado, “we would save billions.”
In the meantime, while Congress decides the fate of SNAP, Catholic Charities is partnering with Harvesters to provide nutrition classes that help SNAP recipients cope with the most recent cuts.
“We’re giving information on how they can make their SNAP dollars stretch further,” said Brabits. “Simple things like preparing a list, buying less meat, supplementing with other proteins.”
And the USCCB is urging Catholics to educate themselves on issues impacting the poor.
“As Catholics, we need to think about how social structures are contributing to higher rates of poverty,” said Granado. “We need to have those conversations so that people are being put back to work; people are getting family-wage jobs.”
He also urged Catholics to support their local food banks.
“From the church’s tradition we have ‘caritas’ — the charitable side — and social justice,” he said. “Those are both the way the church speaks to the social question.”