It was heartening to see the House version of the Farm Bill defeated in May despite Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s misguided support for it. The proposed restrictions would have harmed Maine families and increased healthcare costs for the rest of us.
SNAP provides a vital lifeline for low-income Mainers. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities determined that SNAP “forms a critical foundation for the health and well-being of low-income Americans, lifting millions out of poverty and improving food security.” Simply put, SNAP works, despite the fact that its income threshold is still based largely on data from the 1950s.
The problem is not that poor people simply need to find jobs: the vast majority of able-bodied patrons relying on food pantries already have jobs. As the Center reports, most working-age adults on SNAP who can work do so, and 80 percent were employed within a year of receiving benefits.
And then there are the cruelest victims of poverty: children. In Maine, one in five children faces food insecurity and its associated health problems. As a study conducted by Children’s Health Watch concludes, “Childhood food insecurity is associated with poor child health, increased risk for delayed development, and decreased intellectual and emotional readiness to start school.” And these effects extend well beyond childhood: a second study by the group found that “food insecurity in early childhood makes it harder to gain the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the workforce and contribute to our nation’s economic prosperity.” If children are meant to become active members of society, let alone the leaders of tomorrow, we need to ensure they have sufficient nutrition today.
What the working poor have lacked is not initiative but a sufficient wage. Raising the minimum wage in November 2016 was a monumental step in the right direction. As the Bangor Daily News pointed out in an April 5 editorial, “Maine’s increased minimum wage is working. Lawmakers should leave it alone.”
I’ve volunteered at local food pantries, soup kitchens and emergency food mobile deliveries, and I have yet to meet a Welfare Queen. Given the choice between a job and a handout, nearly everyone will take the job because those without money still have pride. Anyone who believes that helping people in poverty somehow enables them to be lazy has never spoken with a single parent working multiple jobs while raising kids, or the dad who was laid off from the mill where he’d worked for decades, or anyone suffering a health crisis that depleted their savings. I met one man who had been a college professor when his wife died, throwing him into a crippling depression; it wasn’t long before he’d lost his house and had to rely on charity. How many of us are one misfortune away from needing help?
Sweeping poverty under the rug only weakens our foundation. If financial security is your priority, you would be much better off lifting people from the bottom rather than waiting for a trickle from the top. Funds accrued through tax cuts to the wealthy typically are saved or invested, whereas money allocated toward those who have little is injected immediately into local economies. As the April BDN editorial notes, “Every extra dollar that goes to a low-wage worker creates $1.21 worth of economic activity, according to respected economic models. Every dollar that goes into the pockets of high-earning Americans adds just 39 cents to the national economy.”
And that’s not to mention healthcare savings. Providing nutritional assistance to low-income individuals significantly improves health outcomes and reduces costs. According to a Healthify.us article evaluating the effects of food insecurity on health and costs, food-insecure households spend roughly 45 percent more ($6,072 versus $4,208) on medical costs in a year than food-stable households — costs that the rest of us ultimately would bear. Prevention, in the form of nutrition assistance, would cost us far less than the cure.
Restrictions on services are not “tough love”; assisting the least fortunate helps us all. As the Senate considers its own version of the Farm Bill, I implore Susan Collins and Angus King to resist any attempt to increase restrictions on SNAP or other federal food programs that provide essential support for those most in need.
Brian Arundel is a writer and editor living in Gorham. He also is an advocacy volunteer with RESULTS, a nonprofit grassroots anti-poverty organization.
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