On February 7 President Barack Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014 into law. The Act is being hailed as a seminal, bipartisan piece of legislation with a heavy focus on helping farmers. Mr. Obama emphasized the fact that the bill would help rural communities in regards to economic development as well as providing food assistance to needy families. But a question lingers: how can an Act that seems to focus so heavily on aiding rural families and "reforming" the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program include $8 billion in cuts in funding to SNAP?
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps, was created under the Food Stamp Act of 1964. Considering the fact that half of Americans, according to statistics, will experience some form of poverty in their lifetime, SNAP has provided aide to millions of Americans since its inception 50 years ago.
The Food and Nutrition Service, under the United States Department of Agriculture, collects and maintains all relevant data to the SNAP program. According to the FNS, nearly 47,636,084 Americans are recipients of the benefits of the Food Stamps program with the highest number of participants being in California and Texas, each with just over 4 million a piece. The average benefit per individual per month is $133.07 and the average household benefit per month is $274.98. Now, consider that fact that, according to a Gallup poll conducted in July of 2012, the average American family spends $151 a week on groceries, or nearly $604 a month. That's more than twice the amount SNAP has traditionally provided.
SNAP eligibility requirements maintain that, in order to become a recipient, one must maintain steady work if between the ages of 16 and 60 and able-bodied. Those over 60 years of age and/or disabled have alternative options for receiving benefits. Many recipients of SNAP are often working class individuals, but, in many cases, they cannot stay above the poverty line, in part because of the inability of Congress to raise the minimum wage in accordance with inflation. There is more often than not a concerted effort on the part of the individual and their households to get out of poverty, but current economic conditions and various other needs—housing costs, elderly/sick care, childcare, education—make it difficult for these individuals to get ahead. Many Americans are trapped in this cycle of poverty, and SNAP helps provide a little relief.
And yet we cut the benefits. Eight billion dollars cut over the next five years is a severe detriment to those who need that aid, and seem counterproductive to the goals of the Agricultural Act of 2014. Considering the fact that SNAP has one of the lowest error rates amongst all government agencies (at just under 4 percent), it makes little sense to cut such a necessary program.
Catholics in the United States have an extra duty to ensure that such programs are continued. Pope John XXIII wrote in "Pacem in Terris": “Every man has the right to life…to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medicalcare, and finally the necessary social services.” (Paragraph 11). Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed in "Caritas in Veritate": “‘Feed the Hungry’ (Mt. 25:35.37,42) is an ethical imperative for the Universal Church as she responds to the teachings of her Founder,” and again we see it with Pope Francis, who stated in a General Audience on June 5, 2013 “Let us remember well, however, that whenever food is thrown out it is as if it was stolen from the table of the poor, from the hungry!” There is a continuity of commitment to those who hunger, not only spiritually but physically, in the Catholic faith. As Americans and as Catholics, we have a duty to ensure that those who have the least means are protected, defended, and treated with the innate human dignity we are all born with.