This week, the U.S. Senate passed an extensive, 955 billion dollar Farm Bill package that will extend certain subsidies and crop insurance packages for the next 10 years. The Senate also cut $3.9 billion from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which allows low-income families to pay for food costs, through the food stamp program. The Republican-led House of Representatives voted on its own version, cutting food stamps by $20.5 billion over the next 10 years, denying 2 million people the food they need. From a policy and an ethical standpoint, Congress erred by cutting SNAP considering that poverty has only worsened since the Great Recession.
Over time, food stamps were integrated as part of the Farm Bill as a means for urbanites to support the agricultural sector. While preserving family farms should be a focus of the government, much of our agricultural policy is rooted in giving subsidies to large corporations such as Monsanto, whose bottom line is enhanced by the American taxpayer. Other recipients of this money include wealthy landowners, such as Congressman Stephen Fincher (R-TN), who cited the Bible in his defense of cutting food stamps: (while pocketing $70,000 in farm subsidies) “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
Food stamps provide an important function in combating both urban and rural poverty. They not only provide additional resources for the user to pay for their other needs, but also help provide sensible nutrition, which will save us money in the long run. They also provide the biggest economic stimulus per dollar out of any policy the government could enact (multiplier effect of 1.73 per dollar spent). Americans think that hunger is a relic of the past, and while it is true that the United States produces a surplus of food, hunger is an everyday battle for many families. One out of five American children (16 million) struggle with hunger (No Kid Hungry). With extensive health and retirement benefits, and a healthy salary, most members of Congress are seemingly unaware of the challenges of surviving on food stamps. This week, nearly 30 congressmen will take the SNAP challenge and live on $4.50 a day, as 47 million Americans (1 in 7, half of whom are children) do. In many cases, SNAP isn’t enough, evidenced by record numbers serviced at food banks and other charities.
Furthermore, over half of Americans will spend a year under the poverty line. The government has the resources to combat poverty and has instead squandered it on corporate welfare, tax cuts for the wealthy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the drug war. The poor don’t have the political clout that America’s wealthy do. In an era where demagogues like Grover Norquist make any tax increase on America’s wealthiest an anathema, America’s poor are left to fight for themselves.
Over the last few years, conservatives have used welfare as a means to rile up their base and stoke racial divisions among Americans. In fact, the majority of welfare recipients are white, and working Americans. We’ve seen a rise in unemployment and a great increase in discouraged workers that artificially reduced the unemployment rate. Pension plans and other economic security measures have weakened over the last 10 years as employers look to cut back on expenses. Many Americans today work part-time jobs or work without a living wage, or suitable health care coverage. On this topic, the Florida Legislature voted to eliminate Miami-Dade County’s minimum wage provision that will only hurt the weakest in our society.
America’s working poor is growing and growing as the middle class has shrunk. Many workers are forced to take multiple jobs or make incredible sacrifices to make ends meet. The average Chartwells’ worker at UM makes less than $20,000 a year and often must rely on assistance programs to pay their mortgages, get health care, or eat.
If you thought that poverty in America was on the downturn, recent policy alternatives may make it worse.
The decline in unionization has cost millions of workers decent jobs, and the advent of Right to Work (for less) in states like Indiana (and already in Florida) will union and non-union workers alike.
The sequester has laid off millions of workers and hurt many more. Republican cuts to the social safety net have only worsened poverty.
A failure to pass a suitable immigration bill will jeopardize the prosperity of millions of Americans already here and allow owners the leverage to pay their legal workers less.
Unless Congress acts, the student loan interest rate will double to 6.8%, with student debt already surpassing $1 billion and difficult to remove even post-bankruptcy. (Our banks receive preferred rates of less than 1% from the Fed).
However, the biggest test to controlling poverty over the next generation is securing our entitlement programs. Republican ideas to reform our entitlement programs enrich the wealthy while damning the poor. Social Security has been the single-biggest anti-poverty measure undertaken, and have reduced poverty among our seniors by a wide margin. Medicare is effective, popular, and essential for our seniors’ health care needs. Finally, Medicaid provides vital health care to low income Americans. The refusal to take up Medicaid expansion paid for by the Affordable Care Act is a massive failure on the part of the Florida House and cuts millions off from health care coverage they need. Reducing entitlement benefits will only shrink the middle class and make the poor poorer.
We haven’t had a targeted approach to reducing poverty since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Wall Street has recovered from the recession. The majority of Americans haven’t. Income inequality is at an all-time high, with record CEO compensation and giveaways to agribusiness and Big Oil. It’s time to address the problem that nobody really wants to talk about. We need to make sure that our fellow Americans can lead dignified and prosperous lives. We have the both the means and moral responsibility to do so.
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