For at least the 38th time the U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to repeal all or part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 — an exercise in futility meant only to make a political statement over and over.
On the other hand, the House did nothing to follow up on its July 11 decision to delete the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from the federal farm bill. No bill has even been introduced to do what proponents reasoned was the best way to handle SNAP funding — separate the legislation.
Food assistance for the poor thus has become a political football in the partisan wrangling that pervades the U.S. Capitol.
The kneejerk opposition to government welfare programs is to require drug testing for recipients. At least eight states, including our neighbors Oklahoma, Missouri and Tennessee, have passed legislation for drug testing or screening for public assistance applicants or recipients. Such legislation has been proposed in at least 29 other states, including Arkansas, this year.
When it comes to SNAP, though, that’s an inhumane strategy. If a prospective recipient does test positive for illegal drugs, are you then going to deny food to that person and his or her children?
Nationally, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly 48 million people receive SNAP benefits, and 72 percent of those people are in families with children. In Arkansas the percentage is even higher: Of 509,000 participants (1 or every 6 people), 76 percent are in families with children. In fact, nearly half are children.
Deny food to the parent, and you also deny food to the child.
The other major fault is that screening for drugs isn’t cheap or easy. The cost would chew up million of dollars that instead could have been used to buy food.
To be fair, proposals to require drug testing for SNAP recipients were offered in only six states last year, and none passed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
However, the U.S. House tried to amend the Senate farm bill to facilitate drug testing of SNAP recipients. The amendment passed, but the bill didn’t when a coalition of Democrats and Tea Party Republicans combined to beat it for very different reasons.
Nevertheless, there is widespread misunderstanding about the federal nutrition program. For one thing, food stamps are no more. Benefits are loaded on a plastic card known as an electronic benefit card, which can be used only to purchase food at an authorized retail location, of which Arkansas has about 2,300.
The average SNAP benefit in Arkansas is $1.35 per meal per person. Last week I suggested that our congressmen should try to eat on $4.05 a day.
In fact, some congressmen did — but not Arkansas’ four House members, all of whom voted to take SNAP out of the farm bill.
In June about 30 Democratic House members did a trial run, trying to eat on a budget of $4.50 a day.
“Getting your budget down to $4.50 a day is complicated,” wrote Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. “You need to try to make sure you have enough protein, limit your sodium, and find good vegetables.” She added that she bought crackers, peanut butter and an array of canned goods.
The trial didn’t last long.
Federal guidelines determine who is eligible for SNAP benefits. The formula for means testing is fairly complicated, but it starts with a provision that the person’s gross monthly income (not counting any allowable deductions) can be no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty rate.
For a family of four that’s $2,498 a month — slightly under $30,000 a year. The federal minimum wage is only $7.25 an hour so it takes two members of the same family working full-time at that rate to make $30,000 a year.
More than 41 percent of all SNAP participants, both nationally and in Arkansas, are in working families.
That family of four, depending on allowable deductions, can get $668 in nutrition assistance per month, which works out to about $5.50 a day per person (it varies from region to region).
The notion that welfare families use “food stamps” to buy luxury items is misguided On $5.50 a day you can buy a T-bone steak or two, but you’re going to go hungry when the steak is gone.
With SNAP benefits you can buy breads and cereals; fruits and vegetables; meats, fish and poultry; and dairy products. You can also buy seeds and plants that can be used to grow food for household members to eat.
In some areas restaurants can be authorized to accept SNAP benefits from the homeless, elderly or disabled people in exchange for low-cost meals.
SNAP cards cannot be used to buy beer, wine, liquor or tobacco; pet foods; soap, paper products; household supplies; vitamins and medicines; or hot goods or food that will be eaten in the store.
Another common argument against government assistance to the poor is that private organizations, not the government, should provide welfare. Ideally, that would be wonderful, and many charitable organizations do great work through food pantries, church relief efforts and the like. But they don’t have the resources to do it regularly, efficiently or on a widespread basis.
Hunger is an issue we must face as a nation.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.