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Just Picking On the Poor: The Facts and the Faces of Cutting SNAP

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Today, the House of Representatives votes on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly food stamps. The proposal would cut SNAP by nearly $40 billion over the next 10 years. These cuts would hurt millions of people, namely seniors and the poorest among us. But it will most heavily affect low-income families with children where the parent(s) work for a living but don't make enough to adequately feed their families. Working families with kids are 72 percent of all SNAP beneficiaries.

According to the Census Bureau, food stamps kept 4 million people out of poverty last year. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the House proposal would cut assistance to nearly 4 million low-income people in 2014 and an average of 3 million more each year for the next decade. Christian leaders across the evangelical, Catholic, Protestant, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American church spectrum are reacting with moral outrage at this assault on the people that Jesus specifically instructs us to protect.

Many of these leaders are from the Circle of Protection, a coalition of more than 65 heads of denominations and religious organizations, plus more than 5,000 church pastors. We have been working for more than two years to resist federal budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people.

Who are the pastors? They run across the political spectrum, but are characterized by one thing -- they actually know poor people, work with low-income families, and have SNAP beneficiaries in their congregations. All of the pastors I've ever talked to who know, work, and worship with those affected are adamantly opposed to these cuts because they know what they will mean to people they love.

One pastor I spoke to recently, a good man and friend, told me he was worried about government dependence, like the food stamp program. When I told him that the vast majority of food stamps go to working families with young children, and that they are usually only on the program temporarily during hard economic times; he said, "You should get that out." He didn't know the facts and the faces of SNAP. So many of us in the faith community have worked to tell the facts and show the faces -- to share our stories, to "get that out."

The program has enjoyed bipartisan support through the years, but now congressional Republicans are determined to cut these critical nutrition programs to America's hungry. Although SNAP benefits are modest (an average of less than $1.50 per person per meal), SNAP is the nation's foremost tool against hunger and hardship, particularly during recessions and periods of high unemployment. Currently, 47 million Americans benefit from SNAP, but that number is expected to be greatly reduced once the economy recovers. SNAP is designed to expand in periods of great need and contract when the economy is better.

Is it ignorance of how deep the problem of "food insecurity" or hunger is in America now? Is it just ideology against government per se? Because many poor people do have to turn for help to their governments, anti-government rhetoric can often turn to anti-poor rhetoric. Have you seen the Fox News "face" of a SNAP recipient -- a young blond California surfer who brags about cheating on food stamps? Why is Fox News lying? Why don't they tell the real facts and show the real faces of kids who are still hungry even though their parents work?

If you know the facts and faces of the hungry families that are helped by SNAP, I believe it is a moral and even religious problem to vote to cut funding for the program. The Bible clearly says that governmental authority includes the protection of the poor in particular, and instructs political rulers to promote their well-being. So the argument that the poor should just be left to churches and private charity is an unbiblical argument. I would be happy to debate that with any of our conservative Congressmen who keep telling our churches that we are the only ones who should care for the poor. To vote against feeding hungry people is un-Christian, un-Jewish, and goes against any moral inclination, religious or not.

Finally, for politicians to defend these SNAP cuts because of our need to cut spending in general is un-credible and incredible.

These same politicians are not willing to go to where the real money is: the Pentagon budget, which everyone knows to be the most wasteful in government spending, or the myriad subsidies to corporations, including agribusiness subsides to members of Congress who will be voting to cut SNAP for the poor.

Tea Party-elected Rep. Stephen Fincher, (R-Tenn.), who likes to bolster his anti-poor rhetoric with misused Bible verses, collected $3.5 million in farm subsidies between 1999 and 2012, according to the New York Times. Fincher is helping to lead the effort to cut food stamps to working families with children by illogically quoting: "The one who is unwilling to work should not eat," all the while collecting millions of dollars in agricultural subsidies. Congressman Fincher's position is hypocritical -- and it's this kind of hypocrisy that makes Christians look bad and turns young people away from the church.

You see, for many House conservatives this isn't really about SNAP, but about their opposition to the idea that as a society we have the responsibility to care for each other, even during the hard times or when resources are few. Conservatives know their ideas for privatizing Social Security or cutting funding to Medicare and Medicaid are politically unpopular, but their ideology of individualism that borders on social Darwinism remains unchanged. SNAP is the perfect target for them. The image of what it does and whom it serves has been widely distorted by the media, while the people who benefit from it have little influence in the halls of Congress and pose little risk to the political careers of Republican members.

They are going after cuts to the poor and hungry people because they think it is politically safe to do so. So let's call that what it is: moral hypocrisy. Our job, as people of faith, is to protect the poor and to make it politically unsafe for politicians to go after them -- to pick on the poor. So we will be watching who votes against feeding the hungry this week and will remember to bring that to public attention when they run for re-election.

We will be doing our own faith count today. Stay tuned for the results.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.