Eat the Contract: Congress Prepares to Increase Hunger

by Shamim Islam Hunger Action Group

The actual proposed measures of the Republican "Contract with
America," which is filled with attractive rhetoric such as reducing
national debt and eliminating inefficiency in current social programs,
promises to debilitate the foundational fabric of this country.
Potential legislation, which is being rapidly created by the House
with minimal time for public scrutiny, has extremely far reaching
consequences on the environment, education, and especially the status
of the poor. Planned cuts in specific programs such as School Lunches
and Food Stamps foreshadow significant increases in hunger in the US,
where sadly, one in four children are at risk of going to sleep
hungry.

School Lunch Cuts and Block Grants

	The School Lunch program was created nearly a half century
ago, signed into law during the presidency of Harry S. Truman, in what
he called a "matter of national security, to ensure that our children
are properly fed." Today over 25 million children benefit from the
program, under federal guidelines which qualify families of four with
combined annual incomes of less than than $19,240 for free lunches,
and families with an income of less than $27,380 for meals at reduced
prices. The program over the years has usually enjoyed unquestioning
bipartisan support, as much research has proven that a student with a
hungry stomach is more sluggish, less able to concentrate, and less
capable of reaching his or her true learning potential.
	Despite public consensus that these programs are vital to our
national education, the House of Representatives has already prepared
a bill which could deeply undermine the essential success and
stability of the programs. The bill allocates each state a fixed
amount of money, a block grant, for each year. Unlike current law,
where federal spending increases during difficult times because all
children in families who fall under the above mentioned guidelines
automatically are entitled to free or reduced lunches, the proposed
system would be unresponsive to such unpredictable situations as
economic recession, high unemployment, or natural disaster. Also, the
actual money devoted to the programs could diminish further, as the
bill stipulates that up to 20% of the block lump sum could be used for
programs other than school food.
	Incredibly, the proposed bill also seeks to eliminate all
federal nutritional standards (which were actually increased last year
with improved vitamin and mineral content and reduced sodium and fat),
allowing states to run school breakfast and lunch programs with no
nutritional requirements at all.  Most likely, the block grant system
will force states to raise their prices and maximum earning
guidelines, hurting mostly middle-income family children who will no
longer qualify for current benefits. A significant number of schools
could drop out of the school lunch program all together.
	 For families who struggle to meet other financial demands
like rent, a subsidized school meal may be the only nutritious food a
child gets all day. Recently, in remarks made to students and teachers
at Patrick Henry Elementary school in Alexandria, Virginia (following
the proposal of the house bill), President Clinton spoke of a woman
who recently wrote to him in a letter, "I'm glad there were free and
reduced lunches; otherwise my kids would have starved," and also
mentioned a newspaper article he had read "about a cafeteria worker
who said she sees kids every day who are so hungry, they practically
eat the food from other children's plates."

Slashing Food Stamps 

	The current food stamp program, which several Congressman have
referred to as the "national nutritional safety-net," is extremely
vulnerable to immediate cuts. On March 7, the House Agriculture
Committee commenced voting on legislation to reduce $16.5 billion from
projected spending on the program over the next five years.
	Today, 27 million people receive food stamps, more than half
of whom are children. Families of three are qualified for food coupons
if their monthly income is $1,027 or less, and the mean benefit per
person is $69 a month. The program is called a "safety-net" because
eligiblilty is based completely on personal income and assets,
allowing childless couples and single persons, who normally are
ineligible to receive cash benefits under AFDC and other welfare
programs, to receive food stamps. The program was established 31 years
ago and currently is the second largest program for the needy, after
Medicaid.
	The proposed $16.5 billion cut represents a 11% curtailment
from the $149 billion that otherwise would be spent on the program
over the next half decade (the Agriculture department estimates the
savings would actually be closer to $24.4 billion). In addition to
this substantial cut, the bill would also reduce the annual
cost-of-living adjustments for benefits, set maximum caps on food
stamp spending, deny benefits to legal immigrants for at least five
years, and impose much stricter work requirements for recipients.
	Under the proposed legislation, people 18 to 50 years old
would lose food stamp eligibility unless they were working at least 20
hours a week or were in a workfare program. Participants in workfare
programs receive benefits in exchange for doing public service, but
the proposal doesn't provide funds for or require states to operate
such programs, and currently only six states maintain such workfares.
Most programs are small, and nationwide there are only 10,000
participants. Clearly, this proposal will further crunch the
impoverished during economic downturns, and Acting Secretary of
Agriculture, Richard E. Rominger, says "the bill holds nutrition
benefits hostage to jobs that may not exist," predicting that 1.2
million people who were willing to work but unable to find jobs would
lose their benefits.
	 Rominger says, "The Republican bill would destroy two
features of the food stamp program that have made it highly effective:
uniform national standards for eligibility and benefits, and a budget
that increases automatically to meet additional needs in time of
recession" (New York Times).
	The bill also proposes to eventually allow states that issue
benefits in electronic form to receive money in a block grant; each
state could then determine their own benefits and eligibility
criteria. This could lead to greatly varying programs and degradation
of any consistent standards. As Rominger says, "There could be 50
vastly different state programs using 50 different eligibility
standards and offering 50 different nutrition benefits," adding, "each
state could set up different standards for different counties."

Shortsightedness and Vigilance

	Unfortunately, hunger is no minor problem in the United
States, where the disparity between the affluent and the indigent is
shocking: a recent census report indicates that the wealthiest 20% of
US households earn close to half of the nation's income, while the
poorest fifth earn only about 3.5%. The United States's child poverty
rate is twice that of any other industrial country, and over 10% of
Americans live the reality of hunger on a daily basis. In fact,
despite recent national "economic recovery," hunger is on a dramatic
rise in this country.
	The organization Bread for the World reports that, just in the
last year, over a million people fell into poverty and a million more
people participated in the food stamp program. The number of food
pantries and soup kitchens in the US, estimated today at about
150,000, is constantly increasing, especially in suburbs.
Nevertheless, these private agencies are able to distribute only a
fraction (about 10% at 3 to 4 billion dollars) of what current federal
programs provide, just about the same amount that would be cut by
proposed legislation.
	The cuts in the school lunch programs and food stamps have
been denounced by House Democrats and the public as being
"mean-spirited" and "immoral," and President Clinton calls them "penny
wise and pound foolish." In their unwavering commitment to the
rhetoric of the Contract, Republicans are hastily framing poorly
formulated and severely myopic laws. Critics of the food stamp program
reductions decry the insufficient analysis of the real human
consequences of these cuts. In their rush, Republicans were angered
and chagrined to realize that the school lunch program cuts will also
affect the approximately 57,000 children of military families who
receive subsidized meals at Pentagon-run schools on US bases here and
abroad (an additional $10 million from the Pentagon would be needed to
maintain these programs at a current level).
	The combined proposals of the Contract, beyond those
delineated in this article that promise to make Hunger a reality for
more Americans, will exacerbate current social problems and further
divide an already polarized society.  Republicans propose to seriously
jeopardize our children's future through profound cuts to social
programs and education while concurrently increasing military spending
and offering tax relief to the wealthy and big businesses. Though
supporters of the Contract claim they have received a dramatic public
mandate to justify their proposed changes, various polls and the media
have shown that most Americans have broad misconceptions and have
generally been left unaware of what legislation is actually being
considered. If we the people of this country don't confront these
issues with stronger consciousness, activism, and resistance today, we
may all be confronted by a country of deeper desperation and societal
ills tomorrow.

For more information on these and other hunger issues, or for action
opportunities, contact the Hunger Action Group: hunger-action@mit.edu

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