Spotlight Exclusives

January 28, 2009: Providing Food Stamp Benefits in the Stimulus, By James D. Weill, President of the Food Research and Action Center

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Seventy-eight years ago this month, desperate farmers around the small town of England, Arkansas focused the nation۪s attention on the very human impact of the Depression. In early 1931, the land was parched, the local bank had closed, and loans were unavailable. Farmers had run out of food and other options. “500 Farmers Storm Arkansas Town Demanding Food for Their Children” was national news.

Much of their anger was directed at the Red Cross, which had exhausted its supply of food vouchers but was lobbying against federal aid. President Hoover resisted federal help, saying it would undermine self-reliance and that church- and charity-based help was the answer. England, Arkansas overnight became a symbol of the Depression and the inadequacy of the nation۪s response. The Newark, New Jersey Journal editorialized that President Hoover۪s “heart isas cold, selfish and unsympathetic as the heart of a water moccasin.”

The humorist and movie star Will Rogers made a personal plea to President Hoover to provide federal help, was rebuffed, and raised $3 million for the Red Cross in an 18-day tour. Then, in a national radio broadcast, he surprised the President by insisting that the government itself needed to do much more to help.

This country now faces what is likely to be the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, and again an outgoing Administration has not done enough, and particularly did too little, to respond for the neediest people. We can be thankful that the charitable response is more robust than in 1931, and, even more, that the federal government has in place programs like food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and school meals that provide significant help to tens of millions of people when times are hard. Hunger and poverty in America generally are much less harsh than in 1931.

Still, hunger, poverty, and economic insecurity continue to be profound problems and are growing rapidly. The social safety net created in the 1930s and greatly strengthened during the next 40 years has become frayed and is being stretched to the breaking point by the current crisis. Nationwide, 36 million people in 2007 lived in households struggling with hunger, many more than in 2000, and we don۪t yet know how much higher that number will be when 2008 and 2009 data eventually are released. The recession is adding thousands more people to the ranks of the poor and hungry every day, but it also is deepening the poverty and hunger that already existed.

Food pantries and food stamp offices are being overwhelmed. The rapid food price inflation of the last 18 months means that food stamp benefits run out even earlier in the month than they used to. Reports abound of mothers cutting their children۪s milk with water, of pantries rationing emergency aid, of food stamp offices struggling to keep up with applications, of children arriving at school ravenous on Monday mornings, of schools having stayed open over the recent Christmas holidays just to feed children.

Because of the infrastructure already in place, there are sound strategies that Congress and the new President can implement far more quickly and effectively than in 1931. The most essential is a temporary boost in food stamp benefits. 31 million people per month received food stamp benefits this falla number almost certain to increase by millions before the recession ends. But the benefits are so limited that the recipients can۪t afford enough food, much less a healthy diet. Boosting allotments is the most critical step Congress must take, and it is one that Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid have been trying to pass stymied by the failure in September to get 60 votes in the Senate and that President Obama said during the campaign that he supports. The House has included $20 billion for this and other food stamp improvements in its economic recovery plan.

Other economic recovery strategies also can help. They include aid to hard-pressed states to handle the flood of new food stamp applicants; eliminating co-payments for moderate-income parents who can no longer scrape together the funds for their share of school lunch and breakfast costs; boosting funds for the WIC program, food banks, and senior nutrition programs; and improving the refundable Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit.

The best news is that these steps, so good for struggling Americans, are also good for the economy. For example, dollar-for-dollar, increasing food stamp benefits is the single best form of economic stimulus. That۪s because the help the federal government gives to needy people is spent almost immediately. Mark Zandi of Moody۪s has noted that $1 in food stamps generates $1.73 in increased economic activitybetter than any other stimulus investment. The virtues of food stamps as economic stimulus have been noted by such diverse economists as Martin Feldstein, Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Peter Orszag, and Jared Bernstein.

At another time of crisis, 1943, the midst of World War II, Winston Churchill said that “There is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies.” As Congress works through the economic recovery bill, there is no investment more needed, smarter, or more moral than helping the growing numbers of people facing a spiraling struggle to get enough healthy nutrition.

James D. Weill is President of the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit organization that works with hundreds of national, state, and local nonprofit organizations, public agencies, and corporations to address hunger and its root cause, poverty.

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