Playing politics with food

Two congressional conference committees are trying to manufacture consensus from raw materials that may never mesh.

One committee must reconcile the budgetary priorities of devout liberals with those of hard-line conservatives. Insiders say partisan plans championed by Democrat Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan are like “different species that cannot marry.”

The other conference committee, which is working on the overdue farm bill, straddles an equally deep fissure. Senate Democrats think the nation’s food stamp program can be reduced by $4.5 billion over 10 years; House Republicans demand cuts of $39 billion.

Those who have convinced themselves this is primarily a showdown over political or budgetary philosophies got a dose of reality on Friday. Clearly, the food stamp debate is about real people.

On the first of the month, recipients saw their nutritional assistance shrink. A family of four, for instance, saw a $36 per month cut. Translate that into gallons of milk, loaves of bread or plates of macaroni and cheese.

In our state, the reduction stung more than 600,000 households. Immediately, many resource-strapped food banks and meal centers braced for heightened demand (a reminder for us to begin our holiday giving a little earlier this year.)

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are officially known, has opponents who glory in stuffing a straw man full of uncharitable generalizations: Anecdotes about beer and cigarettes purchased with food stamps. Suspicions that most recipients are criminals, immigrants, minorities or able-bodied folks simply too lazy to work.

In our area, about 25 percent of the households receiving food assistance include a senior citizen. Nearly half have children younger than 18. Eighty percent are white, and less than 2 percent are African-American. We have printed these facts before.

Friday’s cuts were not a harsh ploy by Republicans to punish the notorious undeserving 47 percent. No, a federal stimulus plan temporarily increased food assistance in 2009 to help families cope with the recession. The extra benefit was always scheduled to end Nov. 1. But an extension could not have been considered?

All stimuli are not created equal.

The Federal Reserve has propped up financial markets in recent years by buying bonds. In late summer, when the Fed suggested our economy might be strong enough to do without this boost, Wall Street went into a panicky decline. Suddenly, everyone agreed we should delay plans for terminating this financial stimulus.

When it comes to markets, we keep feeding them and feeding them. When it comes to our neighbors, should we be any less charitable?

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