The trickledown economics of hunger

The supposed logic behind a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cut back eligilbity for food stamps is that the job market is so good.

From the 40,000-foot level, or wherever USDA is looking down from, the perspective shows a nation that has fewer jobless and — therefore fewer needy — individuals and households. But the department's view skips the details that would show the actual map of economic pockets in Connecticut and other states.

The rate of unemployment stands at about 3.5 percent, which has been good for many workers and the overall economy. Given that welcome state of affairs, USDA looked at the eligibilty standards for its SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) and decided fewer people should qualify in better economic times. On the premise of good stewardship of your tax dollars, the federal department wants to make sure the public understands there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Food does have to come from somewhere, and someone has to pay for it. In eastern Connecticut, SNAP benefits administered by the state Department of Social Services are one part of a safety net that includes food pantries, school lunch programs and community meals centers. There is no one typical profile of someone using any of those services. The need can be for a family or an individual, short- or long-term, caused by illness or disability or unforeseen expenses.

The new rules would prohibit, in seemingly healthy job markets, the social services department from extending SNAP eligibility for able-bodied 18- to 49-year-olds without dependents for more than three months in a three-year period. However, the rules operate on a basis that Congress has already rejected. It would hurt most the people who live in labor markets where the average employment rate is not what it seems. Bridgeport — where the average is recorded as deceptively low because the same labor market includes wealthy Greenwich and Darien — and  15 other Connecticut communities would unfairly pay the price for macro-math that doesn't accurately reflect local conditions. New London and Norwich are among those to be affected.

The Day agrees with state Attorney General William Tong that Connecticut urban residents will be disproportionately hurt. Tong has joined with 14 other state attorneys general, New York City and Washington, D.C. in a suit that charges the USDA plan violates the intent of Congress for a fair process and should not go into effect.

By denying food stamps benefits to an estimated 26,000 Connecticut residents between 18 and 49 years of age, the government would save an average of $134.20 per person per month. The monthly payout of $3.5 million is significant, but compared to the huge tax benefits the federal government is now handing out to corporations and billionaires, it pales. Food stamps were conceived as a means of getting nutrition to people who might otherwise go hungry or subsist on junk. Healthier individuals make for a healthier society.

That's not to say no one is abusing the system. Frequent reviews of eligibility, particularly in this favorable jobs climate, would be both fair and thrifty. To impose a limit of three months in three years, however, is wielding a blunt instrument that will clobber many who truly need the help.

Social services professionals and the large number of citizen volunteers who feed hungry people through the region's meal sites and food pantries are our eyes and ears on the evidence of need. They recognize that it can be embarassing to come asking for food; most of their customers come because free food allows them to spend more of their limited resources on rent or medicine or children's needs.

Shame on cheaters who manage to scam the system. Catch them in the act and yes, cut off their benefits. But wholesale removal of a category of people from the lists is neither fair nor practical. Better to help the many than punish the few. If the trickledown from federal policy means the state agency cannot pay for thousands of people's food stamps, local volunteerism will have a hard time making up the difference as the lines at food pantries grow.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.


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