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Hungry for change

IF YOU THINK the U.S. government is too generous to the poor, try surviving on the food stamp diet, as four members of Congress pledged to do this week. They have to feed themselves on $21 a week, or $3 a day, which is the average payout to food stamp recipients.

For most families on food stamps, that amount hasn’t changed much since 1996, when Congress undertook a major welfare overhaul and added restrictions to the program aimed at cutting the number of people who could qualify. Because the key formula for computing food stamps for most families isn’t indexed to inflation, the amount one can buy with them has been falling for the last decade.

Congress is now negotiating the 2007 farm bill, a five-year blueprint for the nation’s agricultural supports that also includes the food stamp program. The pairing is a relic of the Depression era, when food stamps were created as a way of feeding the poor using American farmers’ surplus crops. Though that’s no longer the case, farm subsidies and food stamps still have one thing in common: Both are forms of food welfare. The difference is that while the poor and hungry are losing ground, wealthy agribusiness giants continue to hog their billions.

The average monthly household income of the 26 million Americans who receive food stamps is $648. Two of the members of Congress taking the food stamp challenge -- Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) -- have introduced a bill that would provide for small yearly increases in the payout and would revive benefits for some of the groups excluded in 1996. This would add about $4 billion a year to the $33-billion annual cost of the program. Such an increase could be offset by breaking the culture of dependence of a group that is genuinely getting fat off the government trough: farmers.

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The U.S. spends about $20 billion annually on agricultural subsidies, the vast majority going to large commercial operations, not family farms. These payments distort trade, heighten poverty in the Third World and raise food prices for U.S. consumers. Continuing this porkfest while the neediest Americans go hungry is more than nonsensical -- it’s immoral.


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