We miss having Martha Roby represent us on the City Council. She always returned our phone calls and emails, listened to the neighborhoods and even brought her own bags to the grocery store. She’s our age, smart, unpretentious, and seems like our kind of people. Now that she’s in Congress, we don’t see her as often, though she still hugs us when we run into her in the airport. We’ve got nothing much to say one way or another about Arch Lee, except to note that he doesn’t respond to our emails very often and generally seems to lack that homey touch that Roby brought to every interaction. When she represented us at the city level, she really made us feel like she cared about our opinions.
Which is all to say that we like Roby. But we disagree with what seem to be her emerging politics, particularly as they seem to be manifested in the amendment she recently attached to the reauthorization of the Farm Bill. There’s plenty to hate about the Farm Bill – it’s largely a giant subsidy package for corporations that produce commodity crops, arguably squeezing out sustainable food programs and small farmers while making us all fat on heavily subsidized corn treats.
It also happens to be the place where America’s decided to lodge its “food stamps,” or the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). That’s because historically food stamps were a convenient way to deal with surplus commodities: The government would guarantee a market for farmers in need of stability while feeding the poor in need of food.
About 45 million people from about 21 million households used SNAP in 2011. That’s one in seven Americans. The average monthly benefit per person was about $134. In Alabama’s second district, just over 32,000 households received SNAP benefits. Their median income was 13,000 (compared with 44,000 in the district’s non-SNAP families). These are the working poor: Seventy-three percent of the second district’s SNAP households had one or more worker in 2011. And 63% of those households had children under 18 – nationally, nearly half of SNAP recipients are children.
The House’s version of the Farm Bill, fresh out of committee, is poised to make drastic cuts to the SNAP program – more than $16.5 billion over the next decade. That’s not just devastating for the nearly 300,000 children who will lose free school lunches and the 2-3 million people (half of them children) who will lose access to one of our nation’s key bulwarks against hunger. It’s also bad news for our struggling economy. Decades of reliable economic research has shown that food assistance has a substantial economic impact – about $9 in GDP increase for every $5 spent.
Martha’s amendment adds insult to injury. It would deny nutritional assistance to qualifying Americans if they live in a household with anyone who cannot prove they have authorization to live in the United States, even when those individuals are not seeking benefits for themselves.
In the first place, it’s hard to see this as anything other than political grandstanding against immigrants. Undocumented immigrants are already prohibited from receiving SNAP. Period. And legal immigrants have to wait several years before they are even able to apply for benefits. Roby’s amendment will not directly save money. If it indirectly saves money, that will be because needy families do not apply for aid. In other words, because children go hungry.
It is objectionable to use children as pawns in budget or immigration debates. Children don’t get to choose who they live with. Why would anyone deny emergency food aid to vulnerable and eligible children? There’s the argument that their parents (or household members) might not be legally in the United States, but it’s hard to see how that makes a difference in whether a child should be fed.
The First Focus Campaign for Children has estimated that 4.5 million children will lose access to nutrition assistance because of Roby’s amendment (their estimate is here, as a PDF). That’s a shockingly high number. The overwhelming majority of those children (almost 90%) are U.S. citizens.
The amendment is also likely to have a huge spillover beyond immigrant families. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated way back in 2006 that 11 million native-born Americans cannot prove their citizenship. This is especially true for the poor and has probably increased with the recession: Passports are expensive and states are consolidating DMV offices. In fact, Roby’s constituency will be disproportionately hurt by her amendment – people without a passport or birth certificate are disproportionately likely to be rural and Southern.
It’s tempting to think that this amendment is anti-immigrant posturing given to Rep. Roby by a party looking to score political points. This isn’t the Martha we know. Or is it?