Food stamps for thought
Here's an easy one. Fight hunger and boost the economy at the same time.
We're not talking about some loaves-and-fishes miracle. All Congress has to do is make permanent the temporary expansion of the food-stamp program included in the stimulus package last spring.
Food stamps, now formally known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), are the gift that keeps on giving. Mark Zandi of Moody's Economy.com says it is by far the most efficient way of using public money to generate economic activity, producing $1.73 in financial benefits for every $1 spent.
The reason is simple: Poor families spend food stamps immediately, and the dollars ripple quickly through other local businesses. The only strategies that produce anything with a similar economic kick: extending unemployment benefits ($1.64) and repairing infrastructure ($1.59).
Compare that to an across-the-board tax cut, which generates only $1.03 in benefits for every $1 (people save it instead of spend it). Cutting corporate taxes actually costs the Treasury money and produces only 30 cents for each public dollar.
The stimulus package raised the average monthly food-stamp allotment for a family of four by $80 to $668. Congress added a temporary infusion of money for food stamps in the defense appropriations bill sent to the president last week, but lawmakers need to revisit the issue after the holidays.
While they're at it, Congress should also expand a package of child-nutrition programs, including school lunches and WIC (aimed at new mothers and their babies), which are up for reauthorization in 2010. President Obama has called for a $10 billion increase in these programs over 10 years, and even at a time of rising deficits, that's a bargain.
Yes, food aid has an immediate impact on the economy, but the public benefits in many other ways as well. By every index, the economic slump has increased hunger in America. Last month, the Department of Agriculture reported that 17 million households, or 14.6 percent of all Americans, suffered from "food insecurity (and) had difficulty putting enough food on the table at times" during 2008. For families with children, 21 percent faced food shortages.
As Kevin Concannon, an undersecretary of Agriculture, told the New York Times: "This is the most urgent time for our feeding programs in our lifetime, with the exception of the Depression. It's time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people."
Hunger is a practical as well as a moral issue. Children's HealthWatch, a network of pediatricians and public-health experts, reports that children in households facing food shortages are at risk for a whole series of problems, from lower academic performance to more frequent depression.
Yes, the best cure for hunger is a well-paying job. But those are hard to come by in many places, and children are hungry now. Just plug "food stamps" into an Internet search engine, and these headlines pop up: "Food Stamp Recipients Up in Mississippi"; "Struggling Texans Need Viable Food Stamp Service"; "Oregon Sees Huge Jump in Food Stamp Use"; and "Food Stamps Used More and More in Affluent Areas."
A nationwide survey of food-stamp use by the New York Times produced some startling statistics: The program now feeds 36 million Americans, including one in four children; 20,000 are added to the rolls every day; in 239 counties, at least one-quarter of the population receives food aid.
Many families have plunged from a comfortable middle-class life to the edge of desperation. Tyrone Mangold of Martinsville, Ohio, who applied for food stamps after he and his wife both lost their jobs, told the Times: "I always thought people on public assistance were lazy, but it helps me know I can feed my kids."
We saw this problem up close on a recent visit to Bread for the City, a feeding program in downtown Washington that was jammed with people waiting for groceries under their "holiday helpings" campaign. There's a larger point here, the staff told us. People who come through the door for food aid get other help as well: medical care, legal advice and social services.
Food stamps are a valuable public program and should be expanded. But there are also private charities feeding people every day in every American community. This year, we're continuing our family tradition of cutting down on Christmas presents and giving an extra holiday donation to Bread for the City. There are hungry neighbors in your town tonight. Please help them out.
Steve Roberts' new book, "From Every End of This Earth" (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.
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