Barbara Shelly: What food-stamp cuts say about us

11/06/2013 12:00 AM

11/05/2013 5:25 PM

The problem with food stamps isn’t that too many people have them. It’s that too many people need them.

More than 47 million Americans are seeing their monthly benefits cut by 5.5 percent, beginning this month. That’s about $36 less for a family of four to purchase milk, cereal, fruits and veggies and other essentials.

People often are shocked to hear that 1 in 7 Americans receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. In Missouri, for example, about 15 percent of the population uses food stamps; in Kansas, 11 percent.

This doesn’t mean people are greedy or lazy or gaming the system. A little of that goes on, and is eagerly seized upon by people who are convinced that everybody who is poor is on the take. But the lion’s share of food-stamp recipients are working parents. They simply don’t earn enough to feed their families.

It’s no secret that wages are stagnant. The median income for working-age households dropped 12.4 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The American economy grew more than 18 percent in that period, but mostly just the people at the very top of the income ladder saw the benefit.

We have an upside-down, inside-out economy, and nobody is doing enough to fix it. Businesses and corporations sit on record profits but refuse to hire new workers or reward their staffs properly. CEOs receive obscene bonuses while millions of people labor at or near the minimum wage. Too many people compete for low-paying jobs, while good-paying jobs go wanting because employers can’t find people with the right skills because we’re not investing in education the way we should.

The food-stamp cuts are partly because a temporary boost in payments as part of the 2009 federal stimulus law has expired. Congress’ abysmal failure to pass a new farm bill is also part of the mix.

There’s no question this will cause hardship for people, including children and disabled and elderly adults. On the other hand, the boost was intended to be temporary. I get frustrated with the people on one side who want to make excessive food-stamp usage permanent, and I get frustrated with people on the other side who want to knock it back and leave people hungry.

Instead of fighting over food stamps, we should be fighting for fair wages.

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