MOST OF US will be fortunate enough to gather with family and friends on Thursday to celebrate one of our most treasured holidays.
The origin of Thanksgiving was to celebrate the harvest and the blessings of the past year. In reflecting on those blessings, one I tend to take for granted is that, in our family, the question of having enough food to eat is never an issue.
If you are like me, the weekly shopping is a bit of a chore, and I’m always a bit stunned by the final total at the register, but we don’t want for anything. We are blessed.
A significant number of families in New Hampshire, however, are not as fortunate as you and me. Nearly 74,000 people participate in the New Hampshire Food Stamp Program. More than 38%, or 28,000, are children. These families are referred to as being “food insecure,” meaning that at some point each month they might not know where their next meal is coming from.
While the current hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives are receiving wide-spread public attention, a proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make it more difficult for families to qualify for the Food Stamp Program is also being reviewed and has received almost no news coverage.
The USDA proposal would increase the scope of mandatory work requirements for people to receive benefits and effectively increase program financial eligibility guidelines.
In New Hampshire, recent research by the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that the proposed changes to eligibility criteria could mean that 3,500 New Hampshire households would lose benefits. This includes up to 18 percent of all currently enrolled households with children.
This is a proposed policy change that deserves our attention.
The Food Stamp Program (or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as it is referred to nationally) is a state-administered federal safety net program designed to assist households at or near the poverty line to obtain healthy, nutritious food. Program benefits are entirely funded by the federal government. Program administrative expenses are split equally between the state and federal governments. The program is administered federally by USDA.
Research has shown that the program is the most effective anti-hunger program for low-income Americans.
Eligibility for the program is broadly based on household net income (low) after deducting basic living expenses like rent and utilities or qualifying for other public assistance programs.
People can (and do) work and meet the current financial eligibility guidelines. New Hampshire has work requirements in place and program eligibility is generally more restrictive than in many other states.
Reviewing a program’s eligibility requirements periodically isn’t a bad idea. Encouraging people to work isn’t a bad idea either.
The problem with these proposals to tighten program eligibility guidelines is their unintended consequences — particularly for children.
We are one of the most affluent states in the country, but one in eight children in New Hampshire is fed because their family receives benefits from the New Hampshire Food Stamp Program. Most of these children are under the age of 13.
With an unemployment rate in New Hampshire of less than 3 percent, the conventional wisdom is that anyone who can and wants to work can find a job.
According to the NH Fiscal Policy Institute, however, the issue here is that most of the jobs low-income people qualify for and can get are in low-wage occupations (like retail, hospitality and food services).
Imagine being a single parent trying to support two children, pay rent and utilities and put food on the table with a job that pays eight or nine dollars an hour — never mind the $15 minimum that is being proposed in some quarters. You’d have to make some tough choices. Like heat or eat.
Children in low-income households are extraordinarily vulnerable. They have no control over the family they are a part of. They can’t work. They are extremely susceptible to the effects of poor nutrition and hunger.
It’s well documented that children experiencing hunger at home are more likely to suffer developmental impairments, perform poorly in school, have more behavioral and social problems and suffer from worse health.
Ironically, tightening the Food Stamp Program’s eligibility requirements would also mean that a significant number of children could lose access to the free school lunch program, further worsening the problem.
From my perspective, our national policy should be, at a minimum, to ensure that we maintain what we have now. I actually believe that we should be doing more.
We hear about inequality increasing in America, but the thought of even one child going hungry because of these proposed changes to Food Stamp Program eligibility is particularly sobering to me. It may be to you as well.
On Thursday, when our family counts its blessings, I’ll give thanks that we are fortunate not to have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. And my thoughts will be with the policy makers in Washington who will decide if more families and children will share in that blessing — or go hungry.