Food Stamp Cuts: Is Food a Human Right?

Benefits have just been cut for the one in seven Americans who receive food stamps, and more cuts may be on the way. In two readings, students learn about the debate over food stamps and the effect of cuts, and compare the US approach to hunger to that of other countries. 

To the Teacher:

Congress recently cut the nation's food stamp program (officially called Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP) and is now debating even more cuts. If passed, these cuts will be the steepest ever in the program's 50-year history.  With 47 million Americans  - one of every seven people - relying on food stamps, the cuts have touched off a national discussion about hunger in our society and what we should do about it.
This lesson consists of two student readings. The first reading takes a closer look at the current cuts to food stamps and their effect on families. The second reading looks more broadly at the issue of food support, comparing the US government's food programs with those in other countries.
Questions for student discussion follow each reading.


Student Reading 1
Food Stamp Cuts in the News

Congress recently cut the nation's food stamp program (officially called Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP) and is now debating even cuts. One in seven Americans relies on food stamps. As the New York Times reported on November 7, 2013, "The reduction in benefits has affected more than 47 million people... It is the largest wholesale cut in the program since Congress passed the first Food Stamps Act in 1964."
Now lawmakers are debating even steeper cuts. This has touched off a national discussion about hunger in our society and what we - and our government  - should do about it.
The food stamp cuts are coming at a time when many Americans are in need. The number of people using food stamps to get their food has soared since 2008, when the Great Recession began. At the program's height in 2012, roughly one in five American adults was enrolled. While the US economy as a whole has improved over the past few years, the gains have not been shared equally by all Americans, and progress has been especially slow for lower-income workers and families.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 22 million children get food through SNAP, and 10 million of these children live in "deep poverty," with family incomes below half of the poverty line. Another 9 million people on SNA P are elderly or have a serious disability.  The cut enacted in November will be the equivalent of taking away 21 meals per month for a family of four, or 16 meals for a family of three, based on calculations using the $1.70 to $2 per meal allocated by the program. 
Food banks and other charities say they don't have enough food to make up for all the government cuts. "We will have to do what low-income people do, which is reduce the amount of food we hand out and ration," Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, head of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She expects "increased hunger in the state, affecting the health of senior citizens and people with disabilities and forcing more school children to go to classes without eating..." 
In New York, Margarette Purvis, president of Food Bank for New York City, the nation's largest food bank, said that the cuts will "take away more food in our city than we distribute in an entire year." (New York Daily News)
Conservatives are now pushing for even deeper cuts, which they would deliver as part of the farm bill now going through Congress. House Republicans passed legislation that would have resulted in an additional cut of nearly $40 billion in food stamps over 10 years. But in a later deal, the cut was reduced to $9 billion over 10 years. The bill has yet to be passed, so the amount is subject to change. (New York Times
Republicans in Congress defended their proposed cuts by arguing that much of the federal spending on food stamps is wasted on people who abuse the program. As Representative Phil Roe of Tennessee explained in December 2013: "Given this explosion in spending, finding $4 billion in waste, fraud or abuse from this program annually should be possible without significantly impacting those most in need of food security." Representative John Duncan aimed his fire at the government workers who administer the program: "Eligibility requirements have been eased, and those who run the program have no incentive to keep people off. They will get bigger offices, staffs and funding if even more people get food stamps." (Gannett)
Low-income activists and advocates for food access point out that a record number of families, children, and elderly people are relying on food stamps to help make ends meet. As Atlantic correspondent Norm Ornstein argues in a November 21, 2013 article, while there may be some people who take advantage of the system, the vast majority of those receiving food stamps are hard-working people who are struggling to get by. Moreover, Ornstein notes, while Republicans want to require food stamp enrollees to enroll in job training programs, they have not actually provided any additional funding for these programs: 

Five percent of all American families run out of money for food before the month is out, including a large number of working people....
[M]ost food-stamp recipients, including most of those added in the past five years as a result of the Great Recession, want to work and simply can't find jobs. Talk to anybody at a food bank, and they will tell you of seeing people come by for food who used to contribute to them. They don't want to take—they want to give—but find themselves, through no fault of their own, in dire straits. But what made [conservative] argument[s] so hollow was that [they] wanted to tie food-stamp eligibility to job training—without providing a dime for job-training programs, which have also been cut back...
I would love for all sides to find common ground here: Provide the kind of job training that will enable people to find work and move out of poverty while helping them with the basics of food, shelter, health care, and transportation. But to cut, slash, and burn that aid mindlessly without regard for the human cost is stupid, cruel, and reprehensible. 

For Discussion:

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. According to the reading, who will be affected by the recent cuts to food stamps?
  3. Based on the reading or on your own study, what are some of the arguments for or against providing greater funding for the food stamp program?
  4. Conservatives argue that there should be work requirements to receive food stamps. What do you think of this argument? How do advocates for food access respond?                                      


Student Reading 2
Food Assistance in an International Context

How do US policies on food and hunger look on a global scale?
In other advanced industrial countries, food support is integrated into a more robust "social safety net" than that provided in the United States, and citizens in these nations tend to regard food as a human right.

Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have stronger social safety nets than the US, though the nets have frayed somewhat in recent years. These countries do not provide a separate benefit for food assistance. Instead, the government aims to provide low-income people with enough financial support to obtain all basic necessities, from housing and heat to food.
In a May 26, 2013 article in the Huffington Post, Bernie Sanders, the progressive US Senator from Vermont, described Denmark's approach to social spending: 

In Denmark, social policy in areas like healthcare, childcare, education and protecting the unemployed are part of a "solidarity system" that makes sure that almost no one falls into economic despair. Danes pay very high taxes, but in return enjoy a quality of life that many Americans would find hard to believe. As the ambassador mentioned, while it is difficult to become very rich in Denmark no one is allowed to be poor. The minimum wage in Denmark is about twice that of the United States and people who are totally out of the labor market or unable to care for themselves have a basic income guarantee of about $100 per day.


Until recently, Britain, like the Scandinavian countries, did not have a separate benefit for food assistance. While Britain's spending on the social safety net was not as generous as that of countries like Denmark, it was nevertheless more generous than in the United States. 
An extensive network of food banks provides a last line of defense against hunger in Britain. The global economic crisis forced more people to seek government assistance, and some have seen their benefits cut. So now food banks are hard-pressed to meet the growing demand for food.
Recently Britain has moved a step closer to America's system by creating a benefit to be used specifically for food and other groceries. As Patrick Butler reported for The Guardian on March 26, 2013:

"Food stamps" arrive in Britain next month, when tens of thousands of vulnerable people will be issued with food vouchers in lieu of money to tide them over short-term financial crises....Many of the 150 local authorities in England running welfare schemes have confirmed that they will issue the vouchers in the form of payment cards, which will be blocked or monitored to prevent the holder using them for alcohol, cigarettes or gambling...
The shift to in-kind and voluntary assistance follows the decision last year to abolish the government-run social fund and to replace it with more than 150 welfare assistance schemes, operated by English local authorities and the Welsh and Scottish governments.
The social fund - known as the "backstop" of the welfare system - typically offered small loans of about £50, repayable against future benefits, to help vulnerable individuals who faced short-term crises as a result of having cash stolen or benefits delayed.

Welfare rights advocates are opposed to the scheme, as The Guardian's report also notes: 

Some fear the use of in-kind vouchers will repeat the shortcomings of cashless payment cards, issued to asylum seekers. Critics said these cards left users unable to buy essential non-food items, and made them more likely to turn to risky or criminal ways of obtaining cash.
One welfare charity worker said: "There's a lot of naivety. The social fund is big, and meets a whole range of needs. There's going to be an awful lot of people that will need to tap into its successor.

While public benefit programs in Britain still provide a higher level of food security than in the US, food advocates are nevertheless concerned that the new system represents a step in the wrong direction.

Japan's approach to welfare and food assistance is quite different than that of the US or Europe. In Japan, before an individual is considered eligible for public assistance, their family is expected to support them. However, the benefits available to those considered needy are larger than those offered in the United States. As in the Nordic states, food assistance is not divided into a separate program. "Seikatsu Hogo," or livelihood protection, is a unified monthly allowance intended to cover all living expenses, including food. In response to a letter to the editor from an English-speaker who was seeking assistance from Seikatsu Hogo, Angela Jeffs and Ken Joseph, Jr. of the English language Japanese Newspaper Japan Times described the system:

Thankfully in Japan there are a number of programs that can help. First, get a friend who speaks fluent Japanese to take you to the Seikatsu Hogo (livelihood protection) Department at your local city hall.
If you don't have a place to stay, the staff will help you get into an apartment, furnish it for you and loan you the funds to make any necessary down payments.
If you are found to qualify, you can receive monthly seikatsu hogo support, which in the major cities is about ¥148,000 a month [approximately $1,400], including around ¥56,000 [approximately $535] in rent support. They can also supply you with a train or bus pass and papers entitling you to medical care.
If you are elderly and unable to work, this can become permanent. If you are able to work, support will usually continue for about six months until you can find a job and get back on your feet.

In contrast to these other countries where food and other basic needs are considered a human right, in the United States, federal social benefits are scanty, and access to food for the hungry is often left to private charity.  Activists around the country want to change that. 

For Discussion:

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. How do other countries such as Denmark, Japan, or Britain handle food support?
  3. Do you think people in these countries have a different attitude about food assistance than many people in the US?  How?
  4. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists food as a human right. Do you think the US system - limited government benefits supplemented by private charity - ensures this right?
  5. Do you think programs in place in other countries are a better way of addressing hunger? What are some pros and cons of their systems?