New York Times columnist Mark Bittman (famous for his writing on food) reported on Tuesday that he was joining more than 4,000 others who’ve been fasting to call attention to House legislation’s proposed cuts to programs for the poor and hungry. He explains:
[The poor] are — once again — under attack, this time in the House budget bill, H.R. 1. The budget proposes cuts in the WIC program (which supports women, infants and children), in international food and health aid (18 million people would be immediately cut off from a much-needed food stream, and 4 million would lose access to malaria medicine) and in programs that aid farmers in underdeveloped countries. Food stamps are also being attacked, in the twisted “Welfare Reform 2011” bill. (There are other egregious maneuvers in H.R. 1, but I’m sticking to those related to food.)
These supposedly deficit-reducing cuts — they’d barely make a dent — will quite literally cause more people to starve to death, go to bed hungry or live more miserably than are doing so now. And: The bill would increase defense spending.
I’m ashamed to live in a country where tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy take priority over food assistance to the neediest. Leaving aside the issue of our morally indefensible priorities, though, these proposed cuts are also misguided if the goal reducing the deficit.
When Mark Zandi of Moody’s investigated the effects of the fiscal stimulus, he found that increased spending on food stamps had the greatest bang for the buck – each dollar spent generated $1.74 in economic activity, compared to just $0.32 for making the Bush income tax cuts permanent. That’s because people who receive food stamps go out and spend them in their communities, rather than saving the money or using it to pay off debts. Money spent in a grocery store can go to pay store employees, who in turn are likely to spend it on goods and services.
In addition to their up-front boost to economic activity, food stamps and other forms of nutrition assistance are also an investment in our workforce. I’ve written before about people who’ve chronicled their efforts to eat a nutritious diet on a food-stamp budget, and they report feelings of irritability, low energy, and difficulty focusing (as well as hunger pangs). None of this sounds like a recipe for a productive, high-achieving workforce – or for neighbors who’ll contribute to a thriving community.
And even if members of Congress think it’s okay for adults to suffer food insecurity, I hope they support adequate nutrition for children. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reports that about 75% of food stamp recipients live in households that include children, who can be particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of food insecurity. Feeding America writes that children from food-insecure families are at greater risk of overall poor health; of slow or unusual development in speaking, behavior, and movement; and of impaired academic development. School lunch and breakfast programs help many children, but school isn’t in session every day of the week or year.
Nutrition assistance programs are good for the economy and for public health. Given how many people are struggling economically these days, these programs should be expanded, not cut.