As school buses roll through our neighborhoods starting a new school year, twice as many students face hunger as in 2007, before the Great Recession.
More than 63 percent of Tampa Bay area students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. Nearly 1 out of 4 children live below the poverty line. Many students depend on basic food assistance so that they are not too hungry to learn.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), provides food assistance to more than 542,000 students, elderly and others in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties. While the benefits are modest — less than $1.50 per person, per meal — they have a significant impact on children's well-being both today and throughout their lifetime.
Unfortunately, some representatives in Congress are proposing significant cuts — $40 billion over the next 10 years — to this vital program, eliminating basic food assistance for up to 6 million Americans. This is on top of an already scheduled cut to assistance that will affect every SNAP recipient this fall. Make no mistake: Hungry children are being held hostage for political gain in Washington.
Cutting SNAP funds will only make hunger issues worse in Florida. As the senior leader among them, Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, should use the voice of moral wisdom and press Reps. Richard Nugent of Brooksville, Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor and Dennis Ross of Lakeland to unite together to relieve the hunger of Floridians still struggling to recover from the recession.
Until this summer, badly needed antihunger provisions like SNAP had historically been considered alongside agriculture programs in farm legislation. The bipartisan support for the legislation arose from the basic conviction that the richest nation on Earth that supplies food to the world should not stand by and watch its children, elderly, disabled and unemployed go hungry when we have the will and the means to feed them.
The House Republican leadership intentionally split food assistance from the farm bill so it could reward agribusiness while rejecting food aid for those in need. Young, with 40 years of proud service in Congress, knows this repudiates the bipartisan consensus on the farm bill. He should stand up to his leadership, who seem intent on ignoring those in distress, and rally his colleagues to exercise moral leadership.
The recession more than doubled the number of people facing hunger and caught up in poverty. More than 300,000 families in the four-county area are struggling to keep food on the table. While we in the faith community do our best to extend a helping hand to any family in need, the truth is we cannot do it alone. The long economic downturn and slow recovery have increased demand while our resources have become less plentiful. The faith community alone would need more than the $40 billion in proposed cuts to the feed all of the people in need.
Our elected representatives must step up to the plate to represent hungry children with the same passion given to their favorite special interest. This is a commonsense understanding of the Constitution to which they all pledge support: to "promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
Studies from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show that SNAP is highly efficient. Ninety-five percent of funds go directly to food assistance; under 2 percent is issued to households in error. Few charities or other government programs match this performance. In Florida, 85 percent of households receiving SNAP have income below the poverty line (about $22,000 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent of households are in deep poverty, with income below 50 percent of the poverty line. SNAP is a critical tool in helping these families and their children escape poverty, lifting 2.1 million children out of poverty in 2011 alone.
Our nation has the means to feed the hungry and to address poverty successfully. Congress needs to find the will to fight hunger rather than use hunger to fight each other. After all, we do not live in an immoral universe that likes to make children go hungry. We live in a world in which religious leaders such as Jesus plainly say to us as he did to his disciples on the hillside with 5,000 hungry families: "You feed them."
The Rev. Dr. Russell L. Meyer is executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, whose denominational membership reaches nearly a million Floridians. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.