11/06/2013 10:54 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Time to Tell the Truth About Food Stamps

Does it make any difference that families receiving SNAP benefits (food stamps) will have less to spend on food this month? Starting November 1, a family of four will lose $36 per month; or $29 for a three-person family. The loss of $30-$36 per month is a big deal to families living right on the edge. Even before this month's reduction, families often ran out of food. We know this not only from the people that run food banks and food pantries, who see longer lines at the end of each month, but also from evidence of the problems that hunger causes. For example, by the end of the month students that rely on SNAP are hungry, so they get in more trouble at school. When they participate in afterschool programs that feed them, they are less likely to get in trouble at the end of the month.

Now that the average amount per person has dropped from $1.50 to $1.40 per meal, it will be even harder for families to stretch their food budget to the end of the month. The people who get SNAP depend on it because they have lost their jobs or seen their work hours cut back, or are too old, young or disabled to work. Many do not get other help. According to the USDA, 7 million of the total 48 million SNAP recipients have no other income at all. While they are receiving SNAP benefits, over half of all working age, non-disabled adults are working; in the year before or after receiving SNAP, well over 80 percent were employed. Only about 10 percent of SNAP recipients get unemployment insurance; only about 3-4 percent receive aid through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Nine percent have income from SSI (for low-income people who are elderly or with a severe disability); about one in five have income from Social Security. Only about 10 percent are in subsidized housing. When households have income from any of these sources, their incomes remain low. Income from Social Security, for the fraction that receives it, averages $854 per month, or a little over $10,000 a year. Income from unemployment insurance averages $616 per month, or $7,392 per year, although many will not get a full year of benefits.

These low sums illustrate the truth that the right wing tries to obscure: the vast majority of people receiving SNAP are poor, and families with children are among the most deeply poor. According to USDA, the average gross income of SNAP households with children was only 58.4 percent of the poverty line in 2011 (the poverty line was $22,350 for a four-person family in that year).

The truth: SNAP plays a vital role in preventing hunger and food insecurity, responding to high unemployment and helping people with nowhere else to turn. SNAP matters to children's health. When households with children start receiving SNAP benefits, 37 percent are food insecure. After receiving SNAP for 6 months, food insecurity drops to 24.1 percent, according to the USDA. The medical research project Children's HealthWatch has documented that young children in food insecure households are more likely to suffer ill health, hospitalizations, and developmental delays, and confirms that children in families receiving SNAP are less likely to be food insecure than other similarly poor families.

Robert Rector and his colleagues at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, and extreme members of Congress, want to deny SNAP assistance to millions of people in need, drastically reducing SNAP even beyond the November cuts. They misleadingly suggest that about 80 so-called "welfare programs" available to low-income people can substitute for SNAP. Rector said that on the November 1 PBS NewsHour. Wrong. A list of "welfare" programs compiled by Senator Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, includes Medicaid, which is certainly a vital program, but which does not provide food. It also lists a breast cancer screening program, Head Start, Water and Waste Disposal for Rural Communities, K-12 education support, and Pell Grants. All important - but except for snacks for preschoolers in Head Start and school meals, none help a family's food budget. The right wing repeats these assertions at every opportunity. Rector thinks the SNAP cuts are no big deal; families will just lose a "few dollars." It's not much to him. Tianna Gaines Turner, a Philadelphia mom whose children have special dietary needs because of their epilepsy and asthma, saw it differently in a radio interview, "I think that it's very important for listeners to understand it might sound like a small number for someone who's not receiving SNAP, for me and our community, it's going to be a big chunk."

Rector also said the food stamp program does not count people's assets, so "millionaires" can get these benefits. Somebody once hit the lottery and continued to collect SNAP. Right wingers will continue to cite this story till the end of time, but here's a fact: among the SNAP households who have any assets, the average amount is $331. Yes, there are states that have noticed that families unable to keep a reliable car have a much harder time getting back to work. These states have eased the asset requirements so that families can buy cars to get and keep jobs and save a little. There has been bipartisan support for these steps because they allow poor families to help themselves without losing food aid when they still need it.

These right-wing talking points are false, mean and unfair. False, because the facts show that SNAP overwhelmingly serves poor people. Those who receive other benefits are still poor, and education, health care and environmental programs in low-income communities don't feed children or seniors, although they are obviously important investments. Mean, because they are designed to take away food from people who will go hungry without it. And unfair, because they suggest that cutting SNAP is the best way to balance the budget, when we have far better options available to us.

We do have better, fairer choices. What is more important: making sure children have nutritious food to eat or subsidizing stratospheric corporate CEO pay? Taking this food away from families will reduce SNAP costs by $11 billion over 3 years. A loophole in the corporate tax code allows businesses to deduct the cost of "performance-based" executive pay. Getting rid of that loophole would save $50 billion over 10 years. Even after closing the loophole, corporations will still get to deduct the first million of their CEO's pay.

There is something terribly wrong with choosing to reduce the amount of food available to poor people while defending multiple and costly tax breaks for multi-millionaires. This choice perpetuates damaging inequities, slows shared economic growth, and hurts vulnerable people, including children. And it is based on a pile of inaccuracies that don't become true just because they are tirelessly repeated.