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Mary Sanchez: Stop blaming the poor

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Monday, April 1, 2013, at 5:50 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, April 1, 2013, at 5:50 p.m.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts wants to “restore integrity” to America’s food-stamp program.

How about restoring some dignity to the people who receive the aid?

They’re a battered lot. The Kansas senator’s plan to slash $36 billion from the program bears some markings of a harmful attitude.

In too many circles, it’s become reflexive to view those who receive the food help as lazy, a cause of the runaway federal budget. “Solutions” then fall along these lines: Cut the freeloaders.

The number of people receiving help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has increased. But politicians would accomplish more by examining why more people meet the poverty guidelines, instead of concluding that it’s because people are gaming the system.

As the number of unemployed people increased by 94 percent from 2007 to 2011, SNAP participation increased by 70 percent, according to the advocacy group Feeding America.

Also, 76 percent of the households getting the help include a child, an elderly person or a disabled person. The average length of time spent on SNAP is eight to 10 months.

There have been changes in recent years to how states are allowed to qualify people. But those avenues, called categorical eligibility, have not been the main reason for the expanding rolls of the $74 billion food assistance program. It’s the economy.

It is also true that many people don’t wind up poor enough to qualify for food stamps through one bad stroke of luck or one poor decision. It can happen because of a series of choices, even a lifetime of them. Yet gaining the skills to find long-term stable work isn’t likely to occur by the pressure of a penalty – losing benefits – alone.

Cutting a single mother’s food stamps won’t magically raise her ability to navigate short- and long-term goals, afford retraining for a high-paying job or suddenly form a family with a highly educated man who makes four times her own salary.

SNAP likely will continue to suffer from the unfair image that its users are a bunch of lowlifes looking for a permanent handout.

Roberts, to his credit, has never fallen into this camp. Which is why his more hard-line approach is troubling. He’s buffering against more drastic cuts by his GOP peers.

In a statement, Roberts noted, “certainly we can find savings by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.” As if waste, fraud and abuse are the biggest issues, rather than the economy.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts that unemployment will remain high through 2015. But it also expects SNAP to shrink back to prerecession levels of participation as the unemployed find work.

I wonder who will be blamed then.

Mary Sanchez is a columnist with the Kansas City Star.

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