One day soon, likely in the next two weeks, our elected leaders in the United States House of Representatives will take a vote that will determine who gets to eat and who goes hungry.
I am not speaking in hyperbole.
The House Farm Bill, H.R. 2, proposes deep and harmful cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) which would increase hunger and hardship by taking food away from hard-working Mainers, including children in working families, veterans, seniors, and people with disabilities.
Those whom we have elected and sent to Washington, D.C.—those whom we have trusted to provide for the common good—will soon make decisions that will determine who gets to eat and who goes hungry. As a person of faith, as a faith leader, and as a human being with a heart, I find this deeply distressing, and that’s why I’m raising the alarm.
Here’s the thing: No matter a person’s circumstances, no one deserves to be denied food when they’re hungry. Any piece of legislation that threatens to take food away from hungry children, that punishes veterans and seniors and people with disabilities because they live in poverty, is immoral.
I was born and raised in small-town Maine, and educated in Maine’s schools. After completing graduate school in Boston, I chose to return to Maine to raise my kids. One of the things I love about Maine is that we care about each other, and we care about the well-being of our neighbors. We value community and family. We look out for one another, and we do what we can to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. We want to provide opportunities for our children and youth. We understand that everyone—even those whose life experiences are different from ours—is a person of dignity and of sacred worth.
Having adequate food to eat is the most basic of human rights. No one gets by without food. And let’s face it: there is more than enough food available for everyone to eat. All that is required is the compassion to care for those who are struggling to put food on the table and the will to distribute food to those who need it.
SNAP is one of our nation’s most important and successful anti-poverty programs, helping 40 million Americans, including 1 in 7 of our friends and neighbors here in Maine, purchase the food they need to feed their families, stay healthy, and thrive.
Here in Maine, 62 percent of SNAP participants live in households with children. This is an important statistic, because our state ranks seventh highest in the nation for food insecurity, with more than 1 in 5 Maine children sometimes living with hunger, sometimes wondering whether there will be enough food to go around.
This is a moral issue: many of our kids right here in Maine live with chronic hunger. That’s why SNAP is a critically important component of Maine’s social safety net.
Adding layers of red tape in order to withhold food
Among other concerns, the House Farm bill, now on the desks of Representatives Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree, calls for strict new work requirements for SNAP participants. Already “able-bodied” participants, ages 18-49 without dependents, are required to work. The Farm Bill raises the age limit to 59 and redefines dependents as children under the age of six. That means every SNAP participant ages 18-59 who isn’t seriously disabled or raising a child under age six would need to demonstrate, every month, that they are working at least 20 hours a week or participating in a training program.
Here’s why this is a problem: While most SNAP participants are working, for those who aren’t, there are many barriers to employment. Some are living with chronic health conditions that may not rise to the level of disability, but that make consistent employment challenging—even more so without adequate health care. Others lack job skills or live in areas where job opportunities are hard to come by—especially job opportunities that provide a livable wage. Still others lack access to childcare, a critically important resource when low-wage jobs often come with little flexibility around hours of employment. And while the bill includes a provision for training programs in lieu of work, in far too many areas around the state (and around the nation), meaningful training programs don’t exist, and the bill does not provide adequate funding to develop them. Likewise, the bureaucratic infrastructure does not exist to recertify every SNAP participant every month, making the whole requirement little more than another layer (or two or three) of red tape.
And that’s the point: These harsh work requirements are intended to add additional layers of red tape to make it more difficult for people to access food when they’re hungry. They’re intended to further stigmatize, blame, and shame people who live in poverty. They’re intended to punish people who already face the burdensome challenge of unemployment or low-wage employment. Ultimately, these onerous requirements aren’t really about getting people back to work: they’re punitive measures to withhold food from struggling people.
The truth is, in a morally grounded society where everyone counts, people shouldn’t need to prove they’re working in order to qualify for food for their families to eat. Food is a basic right and a human need. Everyone needs food—fuel for our bodies—in order to work. Food must come first.
Everyone believes in the value of work, and clearly our state needs more work opportunities and more job training programs. But the proposed SNAP changes accomplish neither of these. Instead, they impose stricter work requirements that won’t help people find work, but they will lead to more hungry people.
The harsher work requirement is just one of the many concerns about the House Farm Bill. In the end, all of the concerns add up to this: Putting up barriers that make it more difficult for struggling neighbors to access assistance, such as denying food to those who are hungry, are morally wrong and dangerous actions.
Remember the tax bill?
On December 7, 2017, I was one of the faith leaders arrested in Senator Susan Collins’ Portland office because my faith compelled me to witness against this immoral, unjust, and harmful bill. One of the primary reasons we opposed the tax bill was because we could foresee this very moment. We predicted—and we were right—that the primary goal of the tax bill was to lower revenues, to create a deficit crisis, in order to justify massive cuts to SNAP, Medicare, Medicaid, and other safety net programs.
Our elected leaders saw fit to give gigantic tax cuts for wealthy shareholders, powerful people, and greedy corporations—those at the very top of our ladder of wealth and power—and now they are claiming that the only way to pay for these tax cuts is to punish those who are living in poverty. And they’re lining up all the pieces to do that right now, beginning with the devastating hits to SNAP embedded in the House Farm Bill.
If this bill passes in its current form, nonpartisan analysts estimate that two million people who rely on SNAP to feed their families will lose access to food. These cuts would eliminate 13 billion meals from the tables of people who would otherwise go hungry. And while food pantries and generous neighbors are always helpful, these have the capacity to fill just a fraction of the gap. In fact, for every meal that food pantries in cities and towns across our nation provide, SNAP provides twelve. As one astute observer has noted, there is just no way to food bank our way through this problem.
The stakes are high
Each of us can and should help our struggling neighbors, person to person. This is the responsibility that comes with being a compassionate person in an interconnected community. But that will never be enough, the challenge of hunger is too big. In a capitalist society, the way that we ensure that all of our neighbors, including those who are most vulnerable, have access to food, shelter, health care, heat in the winter, and the basics to thrive, is through safety net programs for those who are struggling the most—that is, our tax dollars, to which we all contribute, in order to provide for the common good.
The decisions our leaders are making right now will affect not only those who participate directly in SNAP; they will affect all of us. These decisions are not simply a matter of dollars and cents. In the end, these decisions will define who we are as a nation, who we are as a state, and the values we hold.
A budget is a moral document, and so is a piece of legislation that impacts a program like SNAP. Congress has weighty decision to make—decisions with tremendous moral and ethical implications. One way or the other, we will feel these implications long into the future.
This is the bottom line for me: Everyone deserves to eat. No one deserves to be denied food when they’re hungry.