Taking food off the table of the hungry

Seven Iowa metro areas within the Diocese of Davenport bear the unfortunate distinction of leading the state for food stamp recipients as a percentage of all households.

The Ottumwa area ranks first at 18 percent; Burlington, second at 16.4 percent; Oskaloosa, fourth at 15.4 percent; the Clinton area, fifth at 15.1 percent; Fort Madison, sixth at 13.9 percent; the Newton area, eighth at 13.3 percent; and Fairfield, ninth at 13 percent. Altogether, 17,417 households in these seven metro areas of our diocese depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, to put food on the table! (https://tinyurl.com/rnrphr4)

Despite bipartisan support for SNAP in Congress, demonstrated by passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, the current Administration plans to change three rules, which will erode the program and harm the 38 million children and adults who depend on it for sustenance. These are not lazy people unwilling to work. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the “overwhelming majority of SNAP participants are children, seniors, or people with disabilities. Close to half of all participants are children….”

Of SNAP participants who are employed, many work in service sector jobs such as cashiers, cooks or home health aides. They are more likely to receive low pay, have irregular work hours and frequently lack benefits such as paid sick leave, the center says. “These conditions make it difficult for workers to earn sufficient income to provide for their families and may contribute to volatility such as high job turnover. SNAP supplements these workers’ low pay, helps smooth out income fluctuations due to irregular hours, and helps workers.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced Dec. 4 the first of the three rule changes, which take effect April 1. The change will impact nearly 700,000 SNAP recipients ages 18-49 defined as able-bodied without dependents. His news release states: “In 1996, when then President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform instituting the current work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) he said, ‘First and foremost, it should be about moving people from welfare to work. It should impose time limits on welfare… It [work] gives structure, meaning and dignity to most of our lives.’”

Who among us opposes moving people from welfare to work that provides dignity and meaning? In 1981, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Work is a good thing for man — a good thing for his humanity — because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being….” (Laborem Exercens, No. 9).

Mike Miller, president and CEO of Riverbend Food Bank, based in Davenport, points out that SNAP already has a work requirement. Able-bodied adults ages 18-49 who do not meet the work requirement are limited to three months of SNAP within a 36-month period. However, states may request waivers to that rule in areas with high unemployment or scarcity of jobs. The new rule raises the bar on the unemployment rate.

While Iowa counties are not on the waiver list, as Christ’s followers, we have a commitment to the nearly 700,000 adults who will “have food taken off of their table,” as Miller says. That represents one-third of the concern. Two additional rules changes, not yet finalized, will have an even greater impact on SNAP recipients. One of them, the categorical eligibility rule, currently allows someone who qualifies for another program, such as utility assistance, to automatically qualify for SNAP. The USDA proposes to eliminate that rule. The third rule would change how utility costs, for example, are taken into account when determining SNAP eligibility.

Laura Reiley reports in the Washington Post that an Urban Institute study shows “the combined impact of these (three) rules would cut 3.7 million people from SNAP in an average month” (Washington Post, Dec. 4, 2019).

How can we allow the dismantling of a program that benefits our economy and fulfills a basic human right for children and adults in need? Why add new rules that will require additional funds to monitor when that money would be better spent on food for the hungry?

How should we respond to these changes, which may exceed the USDA’s authority and which looks like an end run around Congress?

• Email or call U.S. Senators Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst and your congressional district’s representative (www.usa.gov/elected-officials) to challenge changes to the three rules because they exceed the Agriculture Secretary’s authority and damage a vital anti-poverty program.

• Write to Agriculture Secretary Perdue, objecting to the changes because they add to administration costs and divert funds away from food for SNAP participants.

• Challenge stereotypes about SNAP participants. “I’ve met a lot of hungry people. I find them to be regular people like you and me,” Miller says. Call people out when you hear them repeat a stereotype.

Our faith requires us to feed the hungry. The 17,417 households identified earlier in this editorial represent just a portion of households in our diocese that depend on SNAP. Taking food off the table of the hungry is a sin.

Barb Arland-Fye, Editor
(arland-fye@davenportdiocese.org)

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