Can I tell you a real success story? One we should all be proud of? Great, here goes: The program formerly known as food stamps has kept hunger from exploding along with the number of Americans living in poverty.
"That food insecurity hasn't increased" since the financial meltdown in 2008, says David Beckmann, president of the Christian anti-hunger group Bread for the World, "is a tremendous testament to the power of SNAP," the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that replaced food stamps.
That does not mean that every child in this rich country of ours has enough to eat. On the contrary, Eli Saslow's recent Washington Post piece on a summer bread bus that takes lunch to kids in rural Tennessee was like something straight out of "Angela's Ashes." The 7-year-old who saves the juice from his fruit cup to feed to his baby sister reminded me of Frank McCourt and his classmates drooling for the apple peelings their teacher tossed into the garbage in Limerick in the 1930s.
But government spending has kept the bottom from falling out: "What I see every day is how much food stamp programs mean to people on the edge," said Monsignor John Enzler, president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. "I tried to live on what food stamps give you for a week last year, and I couldn't do it, but it does make enough of a difference to allow people to stay in their apartments and pay medical expenses and take care of their children."
In a still-sluggish economy — and compared to the alternative — isn't that an outcome we should count as a win? You'd think so. Yet on Thursday, the Republican-controlled House passed a farm bill without the nutrition programs normally funded through that legislation.
Why? Well, as Republicans themselves explained on the House floor, it's because so many on their side of the aisle felt that the $20.5 billion in cuts to nutrition programs in the version of the farm bill that failed last month just weren't deep enough.
"Oh my goodness," Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said some colleagues asked him, "why couldn't you do more?" Oh my goodness, why should poor kids get to eat free? Funding food programs through the farm bill "doesn't serve the needs" of the poor, insisted Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., a fourth-generation farmer who called the bill that passed "the next logical step on the path to real reform."
If you're serious about cutting government, Lucas urged, then vote for the bill. And yet some conservative groups opposed it for not going far enough. (Remember when George W. Bush said he wouldn't balance his budget on the backs of the poor? His party doesn't seem to.) Responding to poverty by paring back food stamp programs is like answering a rise in diabetes by slashing insulin production. And as Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Texas, argued, almost all of the recipients are either children or elderly.
What's to become of these nutrition programs now is unclear. But even the Democratic-controlled Senate wants to cut them, by $4 billion, and the White House has said it can live with that number. So the argument our leaders are having really boils down to whether we're going to cut or gut a program that keeps at-risk kids from going hungry.