Hunger pains

Millions will lack food if Congress doesn't pass a new farm bill

April 17, 2008|By Pete Hershberger and Sandy Rosenberg

Congress must pass a farm bill so that millions of working Americans - rural, urban and suburban - won't go hungry. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that about 28 million people will be using food stamps by October, the most since the program's inception more than 40 years ago.

States already are seeing the effect of hard economic times, as many of our residents turn to the food stamp program so their families can eat. Here in Maryland, one in 16 people receives food stamps - nearly 350,000 individuals. Maryland is one of seven states that have seen double-digit enrollment increases from 2007. In neighboring West Virginia, one in six residents receives food stamps. In Michigan, that figure is one in eight; in Ohio, it's one in 10. Food banks and food pantries report an increase in demand from families who can't make their dollars - and sometimes their food stamps - stretch far enough.

Unfortunately, critical changes to expand and improve access to food stamps are part of the much larger farm bill, which is stymied by disagreements over farm policy and the allocation of funding across a wide range of programs. The House passed its version of the farm bill last July. The Senate passed its bill in December, but a conference agreement has not been reached. Because of this impasse, all of the programs in the farm bill are operating under an extension of the 2002 farm bill that expires tomorrow.

If the deadline passes without a new farm bill, millions of families will miss the opportunity to benefit from increased access to food stamps and other crucial benefits. (As of late Wednesday, the House and Senate had approved a one-week extension of the current farm bill for further negotiations, but the president had yet to approve the extension.)

As state legislators in Arizona and Maryland, we know the value of the food stamp program as a safety net when people lose their jobs or struggle to keep up with the increased costs of food, gas and other essentials. The program has proved its worth as a means of quickly and efficiently getting short-term assistance to needy people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and during other natural disasters.

State legislators see this benefit in our communities every day. Federally funded food stamp benefits support our efforts to help low-income families become self-sufficient, ensure that children come to school properly nourished and ready to learn, and protect the health of our vulnerable elderly citizens.

Unfortunately, the benefits provided in this program have not kept pace with the rising price of food. Food stamp benefits average a mere $1 a person per meal; the minimum monthly benefit has been stuck at $10 for 30 years. Households with more than $3,000 in assets - such as cash or savings - might not qualify. That dollar amount has not changed since 1977.

For all these reasons, the improvements and increased funding in the House and Senate versions of the farm bill are desperately needed. Bipartisan champions of the food stamp program in Congress raised the monthly benefit, allowed recipients to save for retirement and education without affecting their eligibility, and adjusted program-resource limits to account for inflation.

They also increased the standard deduction, which is the amount that households are allowed to deduct for nonfood essentials, such as utilities, from income to determine program eligibility and benefits. And they eliminated the cap on child care expenses that families can deduct when their income is calculated. Proposals to increase funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and prevent Senior Farmers Market benefits from counting as income for other services, such as Medicaid, all complement changes to the food stamp program. Congressional negotiators are working on a funding framework for the farm bill that includes $9.5 billion in new money over 10 years to support improvements to federal food programs.

If Congress does not pass a farm bill, Americans who plant the corn and harvest the wheat that feed us will be poorly served. And many Americans who have never planted a row of corn or harvested a field of wheat will continue to see the value of their benefits or their access to emergency food decline. Congress is debating other measures to address the nation's economic plight, but food stamps are one way to provide immediate relief for those who are struggling in these tough times.

Arizona state Rep. Pete Hershberger is chairman of the National Conference of State Legislatures' Human Services and Welfare Committee. His e-mail is phershberger@azleg.gov. Maryland Del. Sandy Rosenberg is past chairman of the committee. His e-mail is samuel.rosenberg@house.state.md.us.

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