The end of September marks the 40th anniversary of the Food Stamp Act, the program that institutionalized the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Its passage was a model of how to make constructive and important legislation, finding common ground by making tradeoffs across all the usual boundaries. In this case, the key players included George McGovern and Bob Dole, Tom Foley and Shirley Chisholm, among others.
The McGovern-Dole alliance was a striking one. When I came to Washington in 1969-70, I witnessed the near-nuclear conflict between the two men. First, McGovern, a passionate opponent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, went on the floor of the Senate on September 1, 1970 and fingered his colleagues for their culpability: “This chamber reeks of blood.” A collective gasp went through the gallery; senators didn’t talk like this! A few weeks later, freshman Republican Senator Bob Dole took to the floor and ripped McGovern. (McGovern later said that the Bob Dole of that era was “tough and mean.”)
But the two men built a different relationship around the issue of food. McGovern cared deeply about hunger in America. Dole cared deeply about the plight of farmers, who were whipsawed by the commodity markets and prices that sank when there was too much surplus food. That was the basis for a partnership that turned into a legendary friendship spanning four decades, until McGovern’s death in 2012. They used the relationship, and their overlapping interests, to build the broad coalition for the Food Stamp Act, even as the presidency was transitioning from Republican Gerald Ford to Democrat Jimmy Carter, through a stiff headwind against major policy movement in Congress.
They had backup in the House, as liberals Tom Foley and Shirley Chisholm forged their own alliances with conservative farm-state representatives on the Agriculture Committee. Foley was a brilliant legislator who later became chairman of the committee and then speaker of the House. Brooklyn’s Chisholm, an outspoken African American woman who later broke ground by running for president, had been placed on the Agriculture Committee to put her in her place; she said at the time, “I know a tree grows in Brooklyn, but this is ridiculous.” But on the advice of an Orthodox rabbi in her district, she turned her efforts to helping the hungry.
SNAP has been an enormous success story, feeding hungry, poor people. Forget the outrageous anecdotes about food stamp recipients feasting on lobster; consider instead a story I wrote about when I last addressed this issue four years ago, from a column by Katy Waldman in Slate, based on a conversation she had with Debra, a single mother in Washington whose food stamp allotment had been cut from $203 a month to $130. This is what Debra said about getting by on $203 a month:
It’s me and my daughter at home. She’s 21. It was bad enough before the cuts. We were eating lunch meat all week, and we only had enough for a can of vegetables a day. Divide $203 by 30 days, and then by three meals, and then halve it for each person. It’s not a lot.
Here’s the math: At $203 a month, that is $1.13 per meal for each person every day. Go ahead—try to eat on a dollar a meal (72 cents a meal for Debra and her daughter after the cuts.) You can have your Starbucks Chai Latte—if you forego food for the day.
According to Feeding America, 42 million Americans suffer from what the experts call food insecurity—for many, it is simply hunger, period; for others, it is like Debra, rarely if ever getting a full and nutritious meal, often finding near the end of the month that there is nothing left to buy food until the next allotment of food stamps, and perhaps getting by with food banks. According to the Department of Agriculture, 80 percent of SNAP benefits are used within the first half of the month. The consequences of food insecurity are bad; trouble concentrating, more vulnerable to illness. A new study by University of South Carolina researchers found that kids who took tests near the beginning of the month when they had more food stamps did significantly better than those who took the same tests near the end of the month, when they were less able to have regular meals. Another longitudinal study found that poor children with access to SNAP benefits, years later had lower rates of heart disease and obesity, along with better high school performance, than kids who did not. Leaving people hungry hurts not just them, but the entire society, adding to health costs and reducing productivity.
SNAP has dramatically reduced the problems of dire hunger, at least providing a kind of lifeline for millions of Americans—and not just those who do not work. In fact, 81 percent of SNAP benefits go to those who are working or to those we do not expect to work—children, the elderly, the disabled. In other words, SNAP benefits the most vulnerable among us, especially those in dire poverty. It is one of the most successful programs we have had in our social safety net.
Why write about food stamps now, other than the 40-year milestone? Because yet again, Republicans, including the Trump administration, are going after SNAP with a meat ax. President Trump’s budget calls for a cut of more than 25 percent over five years, massively shifting the burden to states, cutting eligibility, and hammering the benefits now going to millions of children, elderly and the disabled. Even as they shift the burden to states that are not prepared to jack up their own budgets, the president and his budget crew want to allow the states to pare basic benefits way below a marginally healthy diet that will make Debra’s situation look great by comparison.
Now it is true that SNAP is not the only program dealing with hunger. For kids, we also have the school lunch program—from which Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wants to remove the nutrition requirements for healthy food put in place at the urging of Michelle Obama. There is Meals on Wheels for seniors—and the Trump budget blows up community block grants that provide a sizable share of the funding for that program. So if Trump, his Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and congressional Republicans get their way, the hungry will grow a lot more hungry and a lot less healthy.
For me and many other Jews, this time of year, the High Holy Days, is a time to reflect on what we have done, individually and collectively, in the past year to help or hurt both our loved ones and others, and what we can and will do in the year ahead. But this is a time for all of us to reflect on what kind of society we want to live in. Let’s keep in mind Hubert Humphrey’s eloquent appeal: The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.
Our government met that test 40 years ago. We are on the verge of failing it, miserably, now.