Education key to eating well on food stamps

A client of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program checks out of a grocery store.   

THE ISSUE

The Trump administration, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has proposed several new regulations this year that would potentially reduce or limit the number of people who are eligible for monthly benefits from the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The most recent proposal, on Oct. 1, would replace “old, inconsistent calculations with a uniform approach based on national surveys of actual household utility costs in each state and decrease the administrative burden of maintaining these calculations at the state level,” the USDA announced in a news release.

We appreciate the federal government’s desire to transform the current byzantine system of determining households’ eligibility for food stamps into something more modern and efficient.

As the USDA states, the current system involves a “patchwork of outdated approaches states currently use,” some of which were developed in the 1970s and involve algorithms that, frankly, have been lost to the sands of time.

Leaving that system fully intact makes little sense. Review and revision are healthy parts of any ongoing government operation.

Marie Fishpaw and Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation noted in August that SNAP is full of loopholes, and that some states even “game the system,” given that the money is coming from federal coffers, not their own. They wrote: “The reality: Americans are generous and compassionate. We spend more than $1.1 trillion per year providing cash, food, housing, and medical care through 90 major government programs to help the poor and near-poor. The administration’s proposed reforms are a good first step toward needed changes to ensure our tax dollar investments go to the truly needy.”

Certainly, wise expenditure of our tax dollars is vital. And waste should be discouraged and rooted out.

But we also hope that these USDA proposals regarding SNAP — none of which is yet law — are considered carefully in Washington. That there is thoughtful debate over their ramifications. That there is a willingness to modify the proposals, if necessary. Because these changes will be failures if they close loopholes and save tax dollars at expense of those who truly need food assistance.

To be sure, many concerns have been raised over the USDA proposals. The New York Times noted Friday that “the latest proposed cut would slice $4.5 billion from the program over five years, trimming monthly benefits by as much as $75 for 1 in 5 struggling families.”

And Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said an earlier USDA proposal might jeopardize food access for more than 200,000 state residents.

“SNAP is the most important anti-hunger program we have,” Miller said at a Sept. 3 Harrisburg news conference, the Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported. “SNAP is the primary way we help feed a lot of families.”

In a late-September news release, Miller added: “Attacks on SNAP make it harder for us to make people’s lives better. These mean-spirited changes ... will only increase hunger across Pennsylvania and will disproportionately impact working families, individuals with disabilities, and seniors. It is cruel and unacceptable.”

Miller’s fiery rhetoric should be taken as a passion for protecting our state’s most vulnerable residents. We don’t think it should be seen as partisan bickering, because this truly shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

Last month, Melissa Howell of the business news website Quartz noted that a USDA proposal to terminate broad-based categorical eligibility for SNAP recipients goes against the idea of protecting state rights and autonomy, which is “traditionally a core value for Republicans.”

Given this, Howell adds that “it is hard to understand how the federal government’s interference with how states manage their nutritional assistance programs is in any way acceptable (to the GOP).”

For us, compassion has to be a component of this debate. Helping others is part of who we are in Lancaster County. We have so many tremendous programs — staffed by volunteers who are our friends, neighbors and co-workers — dedicated to helping those struggling with hunger and food insecurity.

Lancaster County’s Mike Brubaker, a former Republican state senator, the founder of the Pennsylvania Legislative Hunger Caucus and a partner in the Hunger-Free Lancaster Coalition, co-wrote this in 2016: “Republican and Democratic families alike experience the dread of having too little food in the fridge and too many days until the next paycheck. The fight against the scourge of rumbling stomachs and the shame of not having enough is and must be nonpartisan. Hunger harms our children, hurts our seniors and stresses our families. It is a community problem.”

We want to believe the USDA shares this philosophy, too. The federal agency states on its website that it strives to “reduce food insecurity and promote nutritious diets among the American people.”

And so we have the Trump administration’s logical attempt to modernize and streamline SNAP allocations to ensure that our tax dollars are used wisely. And we have the heart and passion of advocates like Miller and Brubaker. Of communities like Lancaster County.

We need both. Brains and heart. We’d like to believe we’re all working toward the same goal on the issue of hunger. But we must make sure that fiscal common sense and compassion remain equal parts of the equation.