Going Hungry In Brooklyn: How the Food Stamp Cuts Affect Us All

c/o inhabitat.com
Last Friday, as Congress haggled over just how many billions of dollars to cut from the federal food stamps program in the forthcoming farm bill, the 2009 Economic Recovery Act expired, putting into effect an immediate and significant reduction in food stamp benefit levels for many of the neediest Americans, including millions of elderly, infirm, and children. Which, first of all, pretty cool that the shutdown is over, right? Now congressional Republicans can go back to doing what they do so well. Namely, slashing social programs that are essential to the millions of people who are suffering during this still-bleak economic climate, and also, being the worst kind of demagogues possible, and framing this gross and heartless move as something that is actually good for the people who are on food stamps, because it will inspire them to be more mindful of what they are consuming, or something. At least, I think that’s their logic. Their logic at least has to be a little more sophisticated than just “we don’t want to pay for your food, poor people,” doesn’t it? I mean, doesn’t it? No? Ok. Well, then.

In Brooklyn alone, an estimated 200,000 families are on food stamps (approximately 1/3 of the borough’s population),and about half of Brooklyn food stamp recipients are children. On average, a family of four will face a $36 drop in benefits per month, while a family of three will lose $29/month, and an individual will lose $11/month. All of these drops mean approximately a ten percent decrease in food benefits, which can be catastrophic for people who are already living on the edge, already having to choose between paying for electricity or a phone bill, childcare or a Metrocard. Social welfare programs like food stamps are supposed to be a safety net for everyone in our society, because the fact is, that many, if not the majority, of Americans (one estimate is 54%) will have the experience of living in poverty or close-to-poverty situations at some point during their lives. And for a whole hell of a lot of Americans, that time is right now.

Dorothy J. Samuels of the New York Times writes, “the Agriculture Department reported that 17.6 million households lacked sufficient resources at some point during 2012 to put food on the table” and that “the Census reported that 15 percent of Americans live in poverty.” These factors have obviously greatly contributed to not only an increased need for food stamps, but also a run on other programs like soup kitchens, which, in New York City, have been facing shortages due to high demand. And so for individuals and families in this city who are already facing untold amounts of stress, their burdens are now further weighted down by the cuts in current benefits and the looming potential of more drastic cuts in the not too distant future. This level of stress can be crippling for people who are barely making ends meet as it is, and depend on that extra $30 a month to put food on their families table—especially when food stamps are (as is the case for many recipients) not a way of life, but a temporary solution to situational problems. One thing that always seems to be lost in the debate over how much social welfare is actually needed (because, sadly, we’re definitely at a point where both Republicans and Democrats want to get that need down to nothing) is that programs like food stamps are almost always temporary, and that they are frequently used as a means to supplement low-income so that the recipient can get to a place of relative financial stability where they can then leave the program. Which is why cutting this program to the point where it’s not viable for recipients to gain any traction is doing little more than guaranteeing that people will need the food stamps for longer periods of time.

But beyond why gutting the food stamp program will have a devastating impact to the people who most need them, the smug and flawed logic behind why the government is intent on weakening the already-full-of-holes social safety net is dangerous for all of us, and has ramifications in many other areas of our lives.One of the more ridiculous aspects of the food stamp debate is that many people in the government (particularly conservatives who frequently are white men) have made a point of othering food stamp recipients in an attempt to make Americans feel like the people who use food stamps do so because of their own weakness and moral failings. Lost in all that demagoguery is the fact that the majority of Americans will deal with poverty at some point and that “half of all American children will at some point during their childhood reside in a household that uses food stamps for a period of time.” Instead of demonizing welfare recipients and condemning them to longer periods of struggling, wouldn’t it be better to embrace the fact that supporting those most in need might lead to situations where children living in poverty could go to school with full stomachs, and have one less thing to worry about? Where mothers could feel safe in the knowledge that they can afford milk and a monthly Metrocard? Isn’t there a chance that these kinds of foundational supports (along with other basic things like access to healthcare and affordable childcare) could lead to things like better test scores in schools with high poverty rates?

But instead of that sort of “we’re all in this together” attitude, we find ourselves in a situation where a large number of people in this country (including many in the government, obviously) think that they’ve done enough, that they only want to take care of themselves and everyone else can figure it out on their own. And it’s not just with food stamps either. In a recent discussion on Fox News (duh) about the Affordable Health Care Act, John Stossel and Steve Doocy both were up in arms about having to pay more money for insurance even though men go to the doctor much less often than women do. I mean, sure, I get that! If women didn’t keep immaculately conceiving babies that can’t be aborted because GOD then men wouldn’t have to pay so much damn money. Stupid women. Except, wait! This makes no sense at all. The whole point of insurance is to be paying money in case something bad happens to you. And if you are a wealthy American, then, chances are, not as much bad stuff will happen to you! Good for you! You won the birth lottery. But guess what? By not taking care of other people who are sick? People who then might go on to cost our country money (because it’s all about money) in a host of other ways? You’re making a huge mistake. And it’s the same thing with food stamps. It doesn’t matter if you think you might never need them, or if you think you’d always find a way to get by without them. You don’t know that! And if your life is never touched by poverty? Then good for you! You win! But if it is? Then wouldn’t you want there to be something there to prevent you from slipping even further down the rungs? And wouldn’t you want something to keep others from doing the same, and finding themselves homeless in our already overburdened shelter system? I would hope so. It’s the right thing to do, the moral thing to do, but it’s also the smartest thing to do in our society that is still in the midst of an economic recovery. And also? Steve Doocy and John Stossel? If you don’t want to pay for my doctor’s visits because I’m a woman, I definitely don’t want to have to be paying for your Viagra prescription, which is covered by most insurances, even though birth control is not.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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