Maine has the third highest rate of people in the nation who routinely don’t get enough to eat. It is a ranking that tells us that tens of thousands of low-income Mainers suffer from poor nutrition and hunger. Now, the Republican Congress has proposed a Farm Bill (HR 2) that will make matters worse by taking more food away from people who are already hungry.
Hunger has a profound effect on how we learn, work, play and stay healthy or keep getting sick. On the hunger spectrum, a lot of damage is being done, which has a broad impact.
In Maine today, thousands of individuals and families cannot put adequate and healthy food on their tables. Over 175,000 Maine citizens rely on Supplemental Food Assistance Program — SNAP or Food Stamps. Who are they? The largest group is households with children, next are households including people with disabilities and older Mainers over age 60, and working families. Ten thousand SNAP recipients are veterans.
Half of all recipients receive food support for less than a year. Since 1980, households with full-time, year-round workers have been the fastest growing of any group as a share of SNAP recipients. This means that more people who are working full-time are not paid a wage high enough to sustain their families.
Just in case you think these are luxury meals, benefits average about $1.19 per person per meal. In a recent report on hunger in Maine, a rural working parent says, “I feed my son, not myself.”A senior man in Kennebec County states that “elderly people are dropping their medicines, to keep money for them to survive … It’s either the medication or they don’t buy food.
And a U.S. Navy veteran in mid-coast Maine says that he frequently skips at least one meal a day, regularly experiences hunger, and cannot make ends meet.
SNAP is incredibly important to reduce hunger and malnutrition. Reports show that it improves health and lowers health care costs. But it also means that families can use their limited earnings to cover other critical costs – like avoiding homelessness, putting gas in the car to get to work, paying for heat. And plenty of research shows what any parent knows — that a hungry child doesn’t learn as well as a well-nourished one.
So, why do Republican members of Congress want to cut food assistance to millions of already hungry Americans, including thousands of Mainers, putting their lives in even greater peril? Will time-limiting benefits, as some argue, improve their lives and reduce poverty? The answer to that question is a resounding, “No.” Quite the opposite actually.
Here’s some evidence. In January 2015, Gov. Paul LePage instituted a three-month time limit for certain individuals statewide unless they met a set of rigid requirements, unrealistic for many. Within three months, 80 percent of those subject to these requirements lost food assistance. A study conducted one year later by the governor’s own Office of Policy and Management revealed no real effect in promoting employment. It found, in fact, quite the opposite: 60 percent of those who lost food assistance — the same percent as those unemployed a year earlier — remained unemployed at the end of the year with neither wages nor food assistance. The House Farm Bill (HR 2) now proposes this same failed strategy for the nation as a whole.
Moving people out of poverty toward self-sufficiency and financial stability is a goal we can all agree on. And we know how to do it. Having studied anti-poverty solutions for decades, evidence reveals that the most effective way to help families leave poverty is to provide them with real opportunities that lead to family-sustaining jobs. Strategies like increasing access to higher education and skill acquisition through apprenticeships create a bridge to a brighter future, helping generations of families truly leave poverty behind. We’ve seen positive results in Maine, with programs like Parents as Scholars and the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program.
SNAP works — it’s our nation’s most effective tool to fight hunger. Changes proposed by the Farm Bill place tens of thousands of Mainers in grave jeopardy — work-wise, learning and education-wise, and certainly health-wise.
It is time to speak up about the Farm Bill. Speak up for our working families, older Mainers and the veterans among us — our neighbors and kin. Chronic hunger and poor nutrition are deeply harmful to individuals and families but it ultimately damages our whole society.
Luisa Deprez is professor emerita of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. Lisa Dodson is visiting scholar at Brandeis University. Both are members of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
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