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Akst: Focus on food stamps neglects effect on people

Not to add to our collective anxiety, but next week, the U.S. House of Representatives could vote to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps – by about 5 percent.

The bill is moving swiftly, bypassing the House Agriculture Committee that oversees food stamps because, as the Huffington Post notes, it’s a special priority for Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House majority leader.

Food stamps aren’t a major story. Quite the opposite: hunger in America means hanging on in quiet desperation (thanks and apologies to Pink Floyd).

This proposed cut, even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture published data last week showing that 14.5 percent, or 17.6 million households, were “food insecure” in 2012. Fifteen percent translates to about 47 million Americans, which is about the same number of people enrolled in SNAP.

Illinois showed the largest SNAP enrollment gain, 14 percent higher than last year.

Food insecurity means households have trouble some time during the year providing enough food for all their members because of a lack of resources. The report also notes that last year, 5.7 percent (7 million households) experienced very low food security. That means the “food intake of some household members was reduced and normal eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year due to limited resources.” These rates have remained static for years.

“There are 50 million people in the United States of America who are hungry, [and] 17 million are kids,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “It is something we all should be ashamed of, and the United States House of Representatives is about to make that worse.”

He added that there has not been a single hearing on food stamps this year.

“Why is One-Sixth of U.S. on Food Stamps?” a Sept. 6 Washington Post headline pointedly asks.

SNAP enrollment, which pays an average monthly benefit of about $133, rose 70 percent during the Great Recession from 2007 to 2011. Some say the data is proof of big-government dependency. However, at least two new economic studies show that “food-stamp enrollment shows a strong and persistent correlation with local unemployment rates,” the Post said.

So if there were more jobs, fewer people would need help buying food?

Who knew?

Regardless of the House bill, the average family of four enrolled in SNAP will see its monthly benefit drop about $36 just in time for Thanksgiving. That’s because a boost to benefits from the 2009 stimulus bill is set to expire.

With a salary of $193,000, a net worth of at least $3 million (according to, and a smarmy demeanor (according to me), Cantor seems badly cast as spokesman for poverty or hunger.

I know somebody better qualified to speak intelligently about hunger and poverty in America: my brother-in-law, Mike Mathews.

Mike works in a poor neighborhood of Kansas City. He helps run the Bishop Sullivan Center, an emergency assistance organization. He sees poverty and hunger, up close and in real time, every day.

“Almost everyone I know who is on food stamps would love to have a well-paying job, would love to be self sufficient, would love to have a place to live and transportation that is not ‘public,’ ” he said.

I’ve never known hunger, but my hometown is on Route 66. Mom, who lived through the Great Depression, often told us about people at the door offering to work for a meal.

Unfortunately, many of us conceptualize “hunger” in sepia tones from the Dust Bowl days. I know this: If the world’s richest, most powerful nation willingly lets 15 percent of its population – many of them kids – go hungry, we don’t have the moral high ground.

“For the most part, food stamps are used by our clients to feed children who have no alternative,” Mike said. “There are hungry children in all our communities. [It’s] hard to learn with no breakfast – hard to do homework with no dinner – school lunch programs cover only one meal on school days. Food stamps are about the children.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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