Hope College Intern, Holland Bread Team
14 December 2012
Views, especially between political parties, vary regarding the role of the United States Government in the lives of the people. Particularly in this time of financial strain, government cuts are prominent in discussions of balancing the budget, with cuts to programs aiding the needy on the line. Churches and charities are frequently in the lime-light when it comes to providing help to individuals in need; but, though at times hidden in the background to the general public, the government’s role is invaluable in the fight to end poverty and hunger. Churches, charities, and the government alike are all called to take on a role of support for those who are going through a time of need. Not one or the other, but all are needed to work together to effectively serve the least among us.
The government of the United States was set up as a government “of the people, by the people, [and] for the people” (Lincoln). This means that all persons are to be taken into account during governmental decisions. However, the programs put in place to aid the poor are regarded as areas in which the government can focus its financial savings through budget cuts. Budget cuts to programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, are a part of budget cut discussions currently taking place between Congressional members. SNAP in particular comprises 80 percent of Farm Bill funding, which Congress is looking to cut by billions of dollars (Turner). The Senate has already proposed and passed by vote a cut of $4.5 billion to SNAP (“Senate Passes Farm Bill”), while the House proposes a $16.5 billion cut to food and hunger relief programs to be included in the 2012 Farm Bill (Turner).
If passed, these large cuts will have a significant impact on the well-being of the hungry. In the 2011 fiscal year, the national average monthly SNAP benefit per person was calculated at $133.85 (USDA). Benefits depend upon income and household expenses, causing a variance in individual benefits. Journalist Daniel Imhoff says that, “the SNAP program remains woefully inadequate to the task of helping poor Americans put three meals on their tables, let alone eat a healthy diet” (2). Healthy food, unfortunately, is generally more expensive than unhealthy options. Therefore, even if this amount can stretch to feed a family, it often does not allow the budget for nutritional meals. This lack of nutrition can therefore increase medical bills, which is then added into the cycle of costs affecting the United States government.
On top of these food budget restraints, consider the case of an individual who has food allergies or other diet restrictions. During an interview conducted by a Holland Bread Team member, one woman shared her struggle with dialysis. This time-consuming kidney treatment forced her out of employment and placed vast restrictions on her diet. She shared that the food stamp program provided around two hundred dollars each month, which she was thankful for. Yet, she also admitted that it proved extremely difficult to buy food consistent with her required medical diet for this monthly amount (T.D.). Even for a typical individual, the food stamp budget can be difficult to stretch, but when health and diet concerns are added into the mix, food stamps often do not provide necessary assistance for proper nutrition.
Even with this information, Congress is proposing large cuts to the SNAP program. One estimate stated that if the $4.5 billion proposal by the Senate became law, the results “could impact 500,000 families and would reduce monthly SNAP benefits by $90” (“Senate Passes Farm Bill”). Another estimate indicated that if the House proposal of $16.5 billion in cuts to SNAP goes through, eligibility for this program would be entirely eliminated for 2 to 3 million people (Rosenbaum & Dean). These cuts would have a detrimental effect on those who are already struggling to put food on the table, leaving them with less or no food support during hard times.
SNAP is only one example of food assistance programs to which governmental budget cuts are aimed. Another program that could be affected is the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced school lunches to qualifying children. In accordance with findings of the Congressional Budget Office, “280,000 children in low-income families whose eligibility for free school meals is tied to their receipt of SNAP would lose free meals when their families lost SNAP benefits” (Rosenbaum & Dean). Additionally, an interview with Mark Tucker, Executive Director of Community Action House, revealed that this organization alone had already lost $122,000 in federal funding since the end of the 2010 fiscal year (Tucker), which according to their annual budget report caused a budget deficit of $81,000 (“Annual Report”). Tucker made sure to point out that Community Action House was only one of many organizations whose government funding has already begun to decrease, and that the numerous affected charities are struggling to compensate for their losses. Cuts to government funding have already negatively impacted programs for the poor, and will continue to do so if these cuts continue.
Not only are local Holland agencies struggling to make up for losses of federal funding, but numerous charities nationwide are going through the same situations. In 2008, the United States Conference of Mayors completed a survey of twenty-five US cities regarding the issues of providing aid to the homeless and hungry (“Hunger and Homelessness Survey”). This survey specifically targeted the topic of emergency food assistance, such as food banks, and these organizations’ abilities to help all of their clients. According to the survey results, an unfortunate cycle occurred during that time in the amount of care provided to those in need. Costs of food increased, stretching organizations’ budgets thin in their ability to provide food services. The downturn of the economy increased the number of individuals in need, while at the same time decreasing the amount of goods and money available for others to donate (p. 6). As a result, churches and charities struggled to fully provide for the great amount of need.
Out of the twenty cities surveyed specifically regarding “unmet need for food assistance”
(p. 9), eighteen replied that they had to “cut back the level of assistance provided at food pantries and soup kitchens” (p. 9). Even more concerning is the extent of the consequences of this lack of available food aid. Of these eighteen cities:
Eighty percent reported a reduction in the quantity of food persons can receive at each
food pantry visit; sixty percent reported having to turn people away due to lack of
resources, and forty percent reported setting limits on the number of times persons could
visit food pantries each month (p. 9).
This reduction in the number of times a person can get food is not specific to only these reporting cities. In a personal interview with a Holland Bread Team member, B.K.—a man attending a local soup kitchen—shared the difficulty of living between the times of food pantry visits.
In his interview, B.K. stated that the local food truck delivers food one time per month, a donation that he gratefully accepts. However, the presence of soup kitchens helps him in the times between that food running low and the next delivery (B.K.). The problem lies in that it is not only food banks that are running low on supplies; soup kitchens have also been affected. At a meeting with an aid from Representative Huizenga’s office, Community Action House Director Mark Tucker discussed the current situation of the organization’s food supply at a local soup kitchen. They were nearly out of food for that month, and were not sure how they would make up for the deficiency of food without turning clients away. In a later interview, Tucker shared a current trend he has been noticing in Community Action House’s efforts to help the needy. He shared that although the economy is said to be improving, the number of people in need of assistance is still at a record high, with supplies not meeting the current need (Tucker). This shows that the trends seen in the US Conference of Mayors’ survey from 2008 continue to occur. If food runs out in soup kitchens, a last line of food supply for many individuals, the hungry likely have no other place to turn for food. Charities are already struggling to provide for needs, and further cuts in federal funding will only intensify the situation.
The following figure puts U.S. Census Bureau statistics, regarding the efficiency of government programs in keeping individuals out of poverty, into perspective (Waldron).
As stated by the statistics in Figure 1, government programs that are set up to provide aid to Americans play a large role in lowering the potential rate of poverty. As a benefit set up for the working poor, the Earned Income Tax Credit lowers the amount of taxes that people who qualify must pay. These individuals may also be eligible for a tax refund (IRS). The Earned Income Tax Credit alone lifted 5.7 million people over the poverty line, which according to the United States’ Census Bureau is set at $23,021 for a family of four (“Poverty Thresholds”). SNAP, Unemployment Insurance, and Social Security also contribute greatly to helping families get through times of great need. Tax program proposals going around both the Senate and the House of Representatives could install decreases to some of these programs in order to balance the United States’ federal budget. One example of the impact of these decisions is that if proposals become reality, the Earned Income Tax Credit could be either lowered in or completely diminished from the lives of 6 million Americans (Waldron). As tax reform and budget cuts are considered, members of Congress need to keep in mind those whom these decisions will affect and how great of an effect certain decisions may have on Americans.
As one journalist points out, it is unfair “to balance the US budget on the backs of the neediest” (Turner). The most vulnerable in this country should not have to take the brunt of attempts to balance the US budget. In his interview with a Holland Bread Team member, one man in attendance at an area soup kitchen was asked, “How would people be affected if the government cut funding for food programs?” His answer: “Some people would die” (B.K.). Without the support that people receive from programs that provide food and other necessities, a number of people would have nothing to lean on in times of need.
One, not unpopular, solution that some Americans suggest is to hand over the duty of caring for the poor and hungry to the private sector through churches and charities. With these organizations at the front lines of providing help to the less fortunate, this solution may at first seem practical. However, statistics prove otherwise.
According to a report put out by economist and President of Bread for the World, David Beckmann, “All the food that churches and charities provide to hungry people is only about 6 percent of what is provided by federal government nutrition programs” (“Churches Need Strong Federal Programs”). With already existing struggles to keep up with need, and additional difficulty in making up for previous losses of federal funding, it is clear that private sector organizations do not have the means to make up for the percentage of aid that the government provides.
Additionally, few people realize how integrated the government is, even within these organizations that provide aid to the hungry. Community Action House is one example of a non-profit agency that functions with both private and government sponsorship. Food programs which supply food trucks or regularly help out charities also rely on government funding, such as Feeding America which gets some food donations from government sources (Feeding America).
According to a study by the Urban Institute, “Government contracts and grants for human-services nonprofits in 2009 were worth over $100 billion and accounted for 65 percent of their total revenue” (“Nonprofits Fear More Government Cuts”). The government has a substantial hand in providing for programs set up to aid the needy. In the same study, 91 percent of participating charity organizations agreed that federal funding cuts would, “Cause significant problems for our organization as we seek to fund our mission,” (“Nonprofits Fear More Government Cuts”). It needs to be recognized how interwoven the government is in the supplying of aid to the hungry, and what a devastating impact drastic budget cuts will have on nearly all programs aiding those who are hungry.
These threatened cuts do not follow the promise of the United States government—to be a government for the people—as they tend to be focused on programs which aid Americans who are in need. A government for the people should not leave individuals to fend for themselves. Abraham Lincoln was not quoted as saying, “A government for the wealthy and middle class.” Rather, he clearly included all Americans by stating:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation,
conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal… and
that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the
earth (Gettysburg Address).
The intended role of the government is to represent and work towards the good of all Americans, which the proposed federal budget cuts fail to do. The social and financial status of various groups should not affect decisions, and no group should be targeted as the poor often are in these choices.
The population of the poor and hungry in the United States, although often overlooked in governmental decisions, is not a small number. The following chart comes from the United States Census Bureau, and gives the number and percentage of Americans each year, from 1959 to 2011, who have suffered from poverty.
According to Figure 2, fifteen percent of the national population in 2011 was living below the nationally established poverty line, meaning that in accordance with the most up-to-date calculations, approximately 46.2 million Americans suffer from poverty. Even after the recession, the number of Americans in poverty increased to reach a record number in history. This data is in line with Mark Tucker’s comments regarding the trends he is observing at Community Action House in Holland, Michigan, in which the amount of need has been on the rise.
Despite these statistics and the trends of record high need, ideas for decreasing the national budget deficit and balancing the federal budget have tended to lean towards propositions to cut funding of aid for the poor. These propositions are not aligned with the purpose of the United States’ government, which is to work for the good of all of the people. The federal government’s obligation is to take each Americans’ needs into consideration when deliberating the governmental actions, including the needs of the poor and hungry.
The short-term help provided by most agencies that are dedicated to aiding the needy is of key importance in dealing with the need of the here-and-now. Many individuals and families would struggle to survive without this form of immediate emergency help. Mark Tucker, from Community Action House, explained that governmental programs such as SNAP and tax credits are also good because, “When the need expands, the programs expand, and when the need goes away, the programs contract” (Tucker). While these programs of immediate and often short-term aid are vital, they only put a Band-Aid on the issues; they do not provide a solution the problem of hunger.
Therefore, focus on not only direct service, but also advocacy is important to the development of a solution to hunger in the United States. In an article written by Msgr. Marvin A. Mottet, he discusses the “two feet of social ministry” (“The ‘Two Feet’ of Ministry: Keeping Our Balance”). One foot represents direct service, and the other is institutional change (Mottet). Just as a person cannot easily keep his or her balance on one foot, in order to successfully move forward in solving hunger, both feet of service and change are essential. Bread for the World believes in the importance of both feet, but recognizes a lack of focus on institutional change among strategies for solving hunger. Therefore, advocacy is at the center of Bread for the World’s work. They advocate for both the continuance of the short-term aid and the government funding of this aid, as well as for the maintenance of laws which protect the most vulnerable.
Bread for the World, as a Christian organization, has encountered those who believe that charity, but not advocacy, is in line with Christianity and Christ’s calling for caring for the poor. The Bible does speak of giving direct aid to the poor: “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:25). However, God does not leave all of the care for the poor to individuals in the private-sector. When Jesus saw the mistreatment of the poor, he confronted the political leaders of the time:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and
have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith; it is these you
ought to have practiced without neglecting the others (Matthew 23:23).
As Bread for the World’s Biblical Basis for Advocacy points out, “When Jesus challenged
the Pharisees and Sadducees, he was confronting the public policy decision-makers” (p. 1). Christianity is not separated from the government, which Jesus proves through his concern with the governmental as well as private-sector actions.
The level of poverty is high in the United States; however, the poor population has been overlooked in many past and current federal governmental decisions. Some Americans suggest that poverty and hunger are private-sector, not public-sector, concerns. However, as past federal funding cuts have shown, churches and charities cannot take on the great deal of need alone. Additionally, while these services are vital temporary resolutions, long-term solutions cannot be found without the sustainment of governmental involvement in these programs and other legal actions. Christianity does not exclude the involvement in the government in caring for the poor. And finally, as the government of the United States was set up as a government of and for the people, there is an uncompromising responsibility to take the needs of every American into account when making decisions of action.
“Annual Report.” Community Action House. Feb. 2012. Online. 25 Nov. 2012.
“Biblical Basis for Advocacy.” Bread for the World. Online. 2 Oct. 2012.
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B.K. Personal Interview. 7 Nov. 2012.
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Imhoff, Daniel. “The Farm Bill Matters.” Slate. 31 Oct. 2012. Online. 28 Nov. 2012.
Lincoln, Abraham. “The Gettysburg Address.” 19 Nov. 1863. Gettysburg Address. Britannica
Academic Addition. Online. 28 Nov. 2012.
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