Congress' food stamp cuts will hurt Whatcom County families, seniors, vets

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 2, 2014 

Congress just approved an $8.5 billion dollar cut over the next 10 years to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps. Stop it. Stop taking more from those who don't have much. Stop asking food banks, pantries, the local community, volunteers and others to do more. Stop making these short-sighted, unethical and economically foolish decisions. Stop it.

The recent arc of the SNAP debate and eventual cut fascinates me. It's been a powerful combination of deception and attrition. Debate over this bill has lasted more than two years. Many members of Congress made villains out of those who rely on SNAP and slammed the program as unnecessary and riddled with fraud. Many opponents trotted out rare and absolutely ridiculous cases such as the lotto winner who continued to get food stamp benefits and archetypes like the California surfer who bragged he didn't work so he could eat lobster while on SNAP.

The truth about this program and the people who use it? SNAP has the lowest fraud rate of any government program, period. That's not how it was described during debate, but that's the truth.

The real faces of people who use SNAP? It's not some California surfer dining off of lobster. They are disabled people on fixed incomes, minimum wage workers, and single moms trying to survive. They are increasingly low-income seniors and formerly solid middle-class families hammered by the recession. SNAP recipients are your co-workers, your neighbors, your school staff and vets. They are not lazy. They are not bad people. They are hungry people. They are trying to get food for their families. Don't believe me? Come stand in my food bank line and see for yourself.

After the House filled our minds with unrealistic images and stories about the SNAP program, opponents proposed cuts of $40 billion to SNAP. They proposed these cuts at a time when the program was doing exactly what it was created to do. They proposed these cuts during a six-year recession that resulted in more families needing the support than any other time in its history. They proposed these cuts while continuing to provide support and loopholes for some of the nation's most profitable companies and richest people. Stop it. SNAP provides targeted, immediate and effective help for those struggling to feed themselves and their families, particularly during times of high need.

Many are lauding the $8.5 billion reduction as a good, bi-partisan compromise. Stop it. Sure, it isn't a $40 billion dollar cut. However, an $8.5 billion cut is still shameful and wrong.

People are already asking me what this means for our food bank, the people we serve and for hungry families in our state and community. Right now one in six Washington households receive food stamps. More than 230,000 Washington families will see a reduction, some dramatic, in their SNAP benefit. This cut comes on the heels of a 13 percent cut that all SNAP families received in November. Happy Thanksgiving, huh?

When I learned of the likelihood of the cuts, I asked a food bank customer what a cut to his food stamps would mean to him. Craig giggled when I asked him the question. He's a Vietnam vet who is on disability for a variety of health challenges. He served his country and worked until his body no longer allowed him to remain employed. "A cut won't hurt me too much, I only get $14 a month." Craig has been coming to our food bank every week for the past seven years. Nearly 20 percent of Bellingham families visited Bellingham Food Bank in 2013. We received 134,000 visits and responded by handing out more than 3 million pounds of food. Collectively, food banks across Whatcom County distributed more than 6 million pounds of food to the single moms, seniors, veterans and children who are depending on food banks for the bulk of their food. Visits to Whatcom County food bank have increased by almost 80 percent since 2007. There is no doubt that the decision to cut the SNAP program, again, will increase the number of families who visit our food banks. Low-income families continue to get picked on and beat up by these types of cuts. Stop it. If you are as upset as I am and want to help, give us a call. We'll continue to do what some in government won't. We'll continue to feed our neighbors.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Cohen is executive director of the Bellingham Food Bank, 1824 Ellis St. For more information call 360-676-0392 or go online to bellinghamfoodbank.org.

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