Ferguson, Borasky, Harding: Nutrition program is government that works


From the Austin American-Statesman:

Nutrition program is government that works
By Miguel Ferguson, Stacey Borasky, Scott Harding

WASHINGTON, D.C. – September 20, 2013 – (RealEstateRama) — What if you learned that a group of domestic troublemakers was planning to destabilize the U.S. economy and invite ruinous hardship on millions of Americans, mainly women, children, the disabled and the elderly? What if you discovered that their plan was to increase unemployment, hunger, homelessness, poverty and poor health? To slow local economies still reeling from a sluggish (or nonexistent) recovery, and push deprivation to Third World levels? Would you sit idly by and let this happen? Or would you fight back?

We suspect that most Americans would do what they could to oppose this scheme. Unfortunately, this nightmare scenario is not a fictional plot. The subversive plan in question is the House Republicans’ stated goal of cutting $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, traditionally referred to as food stamps, over the next 10 years.

Born in the Great Depression and strengthened by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, the nutrition program is a modern anti-poverty marvel. It improves access to healthy meals for more than 20 million children each year — that’s nearly 1 in 3 children in the U.S. It also reduces chronic illness and hospitalizations among children in low-income households and significantly reduces poverty and the severity of poverty among recipient households. The positive effects of the program’s nutrition benefits are often evident years later. American farmers produce ample amounts of food, and providing it to low-income and poor families keeps kids healthier, happier and better prepared to do their best in school.

The nutrition program also acts as a powerful economic stimulus. Use of the program expands when and where need is greatest and contracts when local economies begin to recover. Households with the lowest incomes and limited assets receive higher levels of assistance, though the monthly benefit is quite modest (about $133 per month per eligible member). By providing resources that must be spent at local grocery stores and retail outlets on basic food items, the nutrition program stimulates the farm-to-market nexus and provides the basis for hundreds of thousands of private-sector jobs in the farming, transportation and retail industries. It helps grocery stores stay open, especially in small towns and rural areas where the economy has been particularly hard-hit by the recession. Thanks in part to the nutrition program, small businesses continue to employ your friends, family and neighbors. And finally, contrary to what Republicans often claim, the nutrition program is one of the most efficient government programs, with a rigorous application process, high rates of payment accuracy and low rates of misuse (about 1 cent on the dollar).

The main limitation of the nutrition program is not that it helps feed too many people or costs too much. Instead, its greatest weakness is that nationwide almost 30 percent of eligible individuals do not receive benefits. This problem is especially acute among the elderly. When potential recipients of food assistance are discouraged from applying for benefits, local economies are deprived of billions of dollars. One would think that pro-business Republicans looking to curry the favor of the private sector would be sensitive to this enormous loss of revenue. In Texas, for example, where Gov. Rick Perry trumpets a business friendly environment, low take-up rates left over $2 billion off the table in 2011; California lost over $3 billion in unutilized federal funds. These figures are even more confounding since the federal government pays 100 percent of the SNAP benefits for each state.

The failure to utilize these resources also strains the capacity of state and local government, while leaving an under-resourced network of charities, food banks, and soup kitchens to fill the gap. Ultimately, those who suffer most will be the 47 million Americans — almost half of them children — who will be denied access to an adequate amount of food.

Americans pride themselves on fighting for the underdog, yet too often we sit back and watch as the economy is undermined and our most vulnerable citizens are pushed further to the margins. In this case, the problem is simply too important to ignore. When Congress reconvenes and rogue Republicans attempt once again to dismantle SNAP and our local economies, let’s let them know that we will not let food be denied to our children.

Ferguson is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin. Borasky is chair of the Department of Social Work, Sociology and Criminology at St. Edward’s University. Harding is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Connecticut.


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