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On August 28th, 1963, almost 300,000 people marched on the nation’s capital to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver the most powerful demand to end racism in history. On January 8th, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared the official intent of the United States government to put an end to poverty. We’re half a century away now from both of those historic events, and while we’ve made progress on both fronts, there is still so much left to do.

Two things happened last week that bookend these anniversaries in the starkest terms: President Obama gave his fifth State of the Union address, and the House of Representatives voted to cut the food stamp program by $8 billion over the next ten years, a vote that is expected to be echoed in the Senate.

In some ways, we’ve realized Dr. King’s dream; The United States not only elected its first African-American president, we re-elected him. President Obama’s victories weren’t just about making history, it was about making good public policy. The child of a single mother who grew up on food stamps is now arguably the most powerful person in the world. This is a long way away from a society of legal segregation and hopeless poverty.

In other ways, we’re farther than ever from achieving Dr. King’s and President Johnson’s dreams. Poverty is still very much a reality in American society. African-Americans and Hispanics live below the federal poverty level (FPL) in excess of one-quarter of their entire populations. Nationwide, almost 20% of children come from families that struggle to put food on the table. In New York City, where I live and work, that number rises to 25%.

One out of four New York children, one in five across the country, don’t know where their next meal will come from.

The health consequences of poverty and food insecurity during childhood are dire. Hunger results in lower academic performance, and children who are less likely to graduate from high school and attend college. They are more likely to get sick and recover from illness more slowly. There are associations with behavioral, emotional, and social problems.

The natural response, of course, is to cut over $8 billion from the most important anti-hunger program, and one of the most effective antipoverty programs, in the country.

President Johnson delivers his first State of the Union and declares a war on poverty: “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.” (Source)

On January 28, 2014, the US House of Representatives passed a compromise Farm Bill, the main legislation for agriculture and nutrition policy in the US. It’s the legislation that sets funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program. SNAP provides recipients with assistance purchasing basic food resources – milk, cereal, vegetables, and the like. You can’t use SNAP benefits to buy nonfood items, alcohol or cigarettes, or any hot food items. Nationally, SNAP helps over 47 million Americans get enough food to eat every day. Nearly 72% of SNAP recipients are families with children.

If the Farm Bill is signed into law as-is, $8.6 billion will be cut from the program over the next ten years. We’re calling this a win because it’s not as bad as the $20 billion in cuts that passed the House last year. Under the current legislation, about 1.7 million people (850,000 households) will lose an average of $90 a month. This comes after an across-the-board reduction of $30 a month last November when a program intended to help during the recession expired, despite the fact that the Great Recession is still very much present. 300,000 of the people who will be affected by the new round of cuts live in New York State.

Families affected by the cuts will lose about thirty-four meals each month, and we’re calling this a win.

Thirty-four meals a month. That’s a loss of more than one meal each day, for people who were already pretty hard-pressed to get to their next meal. In New York City, 75% of all public school students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, meaning they come from families with incomes less than $36,000 per year. One meal less each month for over one million Americans can make all the difference in the world.

These are our family and friends, our neighbors and co-workers. Poverty and hunger aren’t things that happen “over there” or “somewhere else.” They happen here, and they happen all around us, every day. These are our children, and we’re balancing the budget on their kitchen tables.

This is wrong. It’s wrong.

Poverty – and specifically, difficulty obtaining food – has a drastic impact on health. Recently, researchers found that low-income people were about 27% more likely to be admitted to the hospital for hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) at the end of the month than at any other time. SNAP benefits, meanwhile, are disbursed once a month at the beginning of the month. There was no week-to-week difference for high-income people, and there was no significant difference for non-nutrition-related health hospitalizations, either based on time of month or income level. Many low-income people who struggle to survive paycheck-to-paycheck don’t even qualify for SNAP, even when they could benefit from the assistance. Being poor quite literally makes you sick.

There are real, long-lasting losses associated with food insecurity. Individual health suffers, family health suffers, community health suffers and, since this seems to be the most important, economic health suffers. Virginia Commonwealth University researchers argue that “an unfavorable effect of SNAP policy on health care costs is a disturbing concern.” Low-income families that have to spend more of their limited resources on food have less money available for other expenses, such as health care. Other research notes that higher incomes are linked to better health and longer life among adults. And a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that access to food stamps has positive health effects for decades after exposure – low-income children have reduced incidence of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes later in life, and women have increased economic self-sufficiency.

SNAP benefits are good for individuals, families, and the entire economy. (Source)

Disturbing is as good a word as any to describe cutting such an effective program.

I understand that politics is about compromise. I understand that you can’t always get what you want. What I don’t understand is how this particular budget cut is in any way considered good math. So much of our success as individuals and as a country depends on our people getting the basic nutrition that allows them to not only function, but thrive.

The results of reduced SNAP benefits don’t exist in isolation. There are ripple effects that will be felt throughout our society for years, decades to come, and we’re only hurting ourselves by doing this. We need to stand up now and demand that proven effective programs be funded at levels that will actually help people. To do any less puts our future in jeopardy.