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November 2, 2013

Congress playing hunger games

By Diane R. Pagen Local Commentary
The Daily Star

---- — On Nov. 1, the daily ration of Food Stamps (also known as SNAP) was cut for 47 million Americans. Each of these families now has $29 a month less to buy food.

How do you make children go hungry in a country where there is no famine? It’s not easy. It takes work for politicians to make it look like A) people don’t really need food stamps and B) that our nation can’t afford them. It requires moralizing about who deserves what, plus inaccuracies about economics and how much food people need. It is called The Hunger Game. We’re all playing it.

If you are becoming comfortable with watching people dig in trash cans for food while you are enjoying a nice lunch, you are playing The Hunger Game. Your growing ease with this sign of desperation in destitute people is what helps some players keep cutting the best program the nation has to prevent people going hungry — food stamps. Not food pantries.

In The Hunger Game, reasonable Americans come to believe that people who pull plastic bottles from others’ trash are just avid environmentalists, and that the 400,000 food pantries nationwide are heartwarming — rather than evidence of our failed income-support system. Legislators on TV say that “too many people are getting food stamps.” In the Hunger Game, a Brooklyn mom overpaid by $8 a month is a scandalous fraud, while 1,400,000 Texans who are eligible for food stamps and don’t receive them is a minor glitch that needs no correction.

The Hunger Game includes excessive paperwork requirements, requirements New York State Commissioner of Social Services Elizabeth Berlin has called “onerous.” Kids are eating ramen noodles while legislators head home to a full meal after a tiring day of legislating childhood misery and illness. Like in 2011, when the Farm Bill was up for re-authorization. The Farm Bill decides how much money schools can be reimbursed for meals. People worried about children asked Congress to raise the per-meal funding, so that schools could afford more nutritious food. Called the Child Nutrition Act, if decently funded, it could have added a few dollars per meal to school lunch budgets so kids could eat more green vegetables and fruits.

Instead, Congress raised the budget for a school meal by only six cents, and funded it by cutting the daily food stamp allotment by way more than that. This means we can expect another cut to food stamps in 2014 in addition to the $29 cut that began Nov. 1. Unstoppable when it comes to squeezing the poor, the Senate and House are now figuring out by how many more billions to cut the food stamp program. I predict the Senate version, the lesser of the two evils, will prevail. Four billion dollars over ten years is better than $40 billion over ten years, isn’t it?

Except that $4 billion is still $400 million a year. Children will be sicker and hungrier than they are now. The grocery budgets of one million households will be cut—again. These cuts will also increase unemployment as families shop less and stores need fewer employees, thereby multiplying the poverty and anxiety of whole communities.

I once played The Hunger Game at a training for employees of Child Protective Services. The facilitator told us all that “there is nothing that says that children need three meals a day.” This was an absurd statement, since the U.S. school lunch program was an early-20th-century reform, started when we realized that poor children were not eating frequently enough. Years later, we added free breakfast. Even the Irish poorhouse mandated that a child get two meals a day. You are losing the Hunger Game for sure when a social-services trainer tells new workers that its fine to feed modern children less than the famine-stricken 19th century Irish fed theirs.

Not everyone who plays The Hunger Game wants to cut food stamps. Members of Congress such as Sandy Levin, James McGovern, and Joe Crowley and others have worked against cuts. People like Dr. William Booker, Joel Berg, Jeff Bridges and Cardinal Timothy Dolan have, too.

There is no excuse for American children going without food, or for keeping the benefit inadequate to meet common sense nutritional standards. To cut food stamps is not responsible deficit reduction. It’s a reckless social experiment.

Take note: your latte costs more than Congress is willing to pay for a child to eat for one day. Unimpressed by studies that show obesity, diabetes, and poor brain development are results of hunger, many legislators and pundits have a new object for The Hunger Game. It’s to answer this question: just how “hungry” does an American child have to be to die?

Diane R. Pagen is a lecturer of social policy at Rutgers Graduate School of Social Work, co-author of a comic book, The Adventures of Carrie Giver: The Cost of Caring (2006), about family caregiving and poverty, and a former Delhi resident.