Congress may take up legislation this week to cut food stamps. The Senate passed a bill in June mandating $4 billion in cuts over 10 years; the House version, passed in September, imposes nearly $40 billion in reductions. A conference committee has been charged with resolving these differences. Somehow, this negotiation is occurring amid the worst poverty levels in two decades, a weak overall economy and rapidly falling budget deficits. Under these circumstances, it would be economically and morally unsound to carry out the cuts.
Nearly 20 percent of Americans are officially poor or near poor. The Census Bureau reports that 15 percent of the population — nearly 47 million people — lives in poverty, including 22 percent of children. For an individual, this means annual income of $12,000 or less. For a family of four, the poverty threshold is $24,000 or less. Consider what living on those amounts would mean.
Roughly 18 million other people are near-poor, living within 130 percent of the poverty line, according to census data. For individuals, this means earning $15,000 or less. These people often weave in and out of official poverty, depending on the month.
Most Americans living in poverty experience hunger or the pervasive fear of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 49 million Americans, including 16 million children, lived in food-insecure households last year. That means that at some point in 2012, these households did not have enough food or were uncertain of having enough. That is as if all of California, Oregon and Washington were experiencing hunger or were afraid of it. There are serious social, economic and health consequences; for instance, diabetes, obesity and other chronic conditions afflict Americans who don’t have access to adequate nutrition.
Total federal spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), this country’s main hunger prevention program, was $82.5 billion in fiscal 2013. To some that sounds like a lot, it’s a small fraction of a $3.5 trillion budget and $16 trillion economy. This is evident when per capita benefits are studied: The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act temporarily raised the weekly SNAP benefit by $25 to $33 for a family of four. But that temporary increase was allowed to expire this fall, so the SNAP benefit is back to the lower figure, or less than $1.40 per person per meal. These are small amounts relative to grocery costs, and even then only those with incomes below 130 percent of the poverty line are eligible for the aid.
It is hard to reconcile traditional American values of hard work and generosity with the levels of poverty and fear of hunger in our country, especially because large shares of those suffering this plight work. Nearly 11 million working Americans had annual income below the poverty line last year.
The working poor or near-poor are also disadvantaged by our tax system. When a low-wage worker gets a raise or his or her spouse joins the workforce, food stamps are cut back. The family’s Medicaid eligibility is in jeopardy, and earned-income tax credit refunds are reduced or eliminated. A November 2012 Congressional Budget Office analysis concluded that the marginal tax rate imposed on increased income for such workers can be as much as 95 cents on every additional dollar earned. This is counterproductive.
Food stamps aren’t just a question of social justice; they are also a matter of economic policy. SNAP spending was increased in 2009 as part of the stimulus legislation to help rescue the economy. Like other elements of that legislation, the idea was to put money into the pockets of financially distressed Americans who would immediately spend it. The CBO reported that this legislation was largely effective in protecting the economy. More broadly, investments such as SNAP equip the poor and near-poor to succeed economically. Good nutrition — as well as health care, education and secure housing — are requisites for productivity, helping unemployed or marginally employed workers move into better jobs. This also allows them to build a better life for their children.
We believe that it would be both unjust and economically unsound for Congress to cut benefits to the poor and near-poor. It has been a generation since our country last had a robust conversation about combatting poverty. Now is the time to reinvigorate that conversation, not cut needed benefits.
Robert E. Rubin and Roger C. Altman were Treasury secretary and deputy Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. Melissa Kearney is director of the Hamilton Project.