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Balancing on the Poor

Shame on the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee for slashing food and nutrition programs in its version of the 2012 Farm Bill.

According to The New York Times,  the House measure cuts $16.5 billion from the food stamp program,  part of $35 billion in overall cuts to the bill.The gap between the House and Senate versions is wide. The Senate cuts totaled $23 billion,  with close to a $4.5 billion reduction in the food stamp program.

That was bad enough. The House version amplifies the irresponsible Senate cuts,  creating the prospect of an ugly compromise once this measure is finally passed,  whether before or after the election.

We are living in terrible economic times for many. Food prices have increased and likely will increase further because of the drought. The numbers of people who have filed for and received  food stamps has been rising in the past decade. The program currently serves about 46 million Americans,  up from 19 million in 2002. President Obama’s budget proposal for 2013 approaches $4 trillion.

To put things in perspective,  the current $80-billion fiscal-year food stamp expenditure represents about .02 percent of the proposed new budget.

We have too often heard arguments that the poor and unemployed are lazy and need to take more responsibility for their lives. The official unemployment rate is currently hovering above 8 percent,  while some estimates put it at closer to 15 percent. Meanwhile,  official poverty rates have soared to levels not seen in nearly 30 years.

Have people in this country really become that much lazier in the past decade? Or,  could it be that the country’s economy and job markets are no longer accessible to them? More importantly,  when will the workplace economy open up again for the millions of unemployed?

If current conditions — and yet another “jobless recovery” — continue,  the change may will be awhile in coming.

According to the Times,  Chicago-based Feeding America estimated that three million people would lose benefits if the House version stands. Even worse,  nearly 300, 000 children would be ineligible for the school lunch program.

Representative Frank D. Lucas,  Republican of Oklahoma and chair of the House Agriculture Committee,  called the House version “a balanced,  reform-minded,  fiscally responsible bill that underscores our commitment to production agriculture and rural America,  achieves real savings and improves program efficiency.”

Sir, the truth in these words is sure. This measure is balanced: on the backs of the poor.

In the rush for “reform,” fiscal responsibility, and efficiency, the program does save money. But here’s the unspoken truth: this Farm Bill would inflict real harm on real people who are blocked from full participation in American economic life.

A country is only as strong as its weakest link. Both the House and Senate versions attack that link. Shame is not a strong enough word for what is going on here. Let’s call it what it is: a cruel injustice to the poor that hurts us all.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

This column originally appeared in the Daily Yonder.

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