June 21, 2007
Stamping Out Hunger
For three decades, food stamp benefits have been America’s first line of defense against hunger, providing modest but vital assistance to millions of American families, and also serving our country during times of extraordinary need. For example, federal food stamp assistance played a crucial role in averting hunger and malnutrition among the millions of Americans who were devastated by the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005.
But there’s a problem. Over the years, the food stamp benefit has shrunk because of inflation. At roughly $1 a meal, bologna sandwiches are often about as good as it gets. Fresh fruits and vegetables, quality meats, and other nutritious foods are typically just too expensive for families that rely on food stamps.
Fortunately, with the federal nutrition assistance programs due for review and extension as part of the upcoming farm bill, we have an opportunity and an obligation to update this indispensable national program. Reforming federal nutrition assistance should include a number of elements:
- Most fundamentally, we need to increase the basic food stamp benefit because it has fallen far behind inflation.
- When determining eligibility and benefits, we must account for the rise in child care costs by increasing the deduction for child care expenses from $175 a month to a more realistic $650 a month.
- We should change the rules so a family does not have to hit rock bottom before receiving nutrition assistance. Under current rules, if a family has more than $2,000 in savings or liquid assets, they cannot receive food stamp benefits. That amount has barely changed since 1977. To account for inflation, we should raise the limit to at least $6,000 and exempt tax-preferred retirement and educational savings accounts. We should not discourage poor families from doing what we encourage every other American family to do, which is to save.
- Community food providers such as food banks and community kitchens also play a vital role in fighting hunger, stepping in to fill the gap when families don’t receive food stamp benefits or when their benefits run out before the month does. Providing additional federal funding to support the tremendous private voluntary efforts of local food banks is a basic step Congress should take in the pending farm bill.
One of our nation’s best moral traditions is its determination to ensure that low-income citizens – especially families with children, and elderly people living on fixed incomes – do not go hungry. As Chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, one of my highest priorities in the new farm bill is making sure the federal government fulfills its responsibility to help eliminate hunger and malnutrition from our land of plenty.