08/05/2010 03:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Senate vote could cut SNAP funding

Right now, adequate funding for a crucial safety net for millions of low-income Americans is at risk. Today, senators will decide whether to provide assistance to states for Medicaid and teacher funding or to protect SNAP benefits. Congress has been struggling to pass a bill to prevent cutbacks in Medicaid services and prevent teacher layoffs. The package under consideration today cuts future SNAP benefits by $11.9 billion to pay for the bill. On Monday, 61 senators voted to move forward with the package, and members of the House are poised to fly back to Washington on Tuesday to vote on the measure should it clear the Senate today.

An article in yesterday's New York Times described the political struggle to come up with agreeable offsets to pay for the bill, referring to the SNAP offset merely as "other spending cuts." Coverage in today's Washington Post mentions the cut to SNAP benefits but doesn't address the impact. Congress and the White House have been similarly quiet on the implications of cutting critical nutrition assistance. Sadly, a cut that will affect millions of families struggling to put food on the table has become little more than a footnote in the struggle to provide the same families with medical care and ensure teachers for their children's schools.

SNAP should not be used an offset for anything, and any program that serves over 40 million vulnerable Americans each month, nearly half of them children, deserves greater acknowledgement by both our legislators and the media. One in seven households struggles to put enough food on the table. Without the ARRA boost in SNAP benefits that Congress is using to pay for the Medicaid package, this number would certainly be much worse.

Taking SNAP benefits from low-income families would increase food insecurity, including among millions of children. But just as concerning as the cuts themselves is how they would be implemented. Congress carefully crafted the ARRA increase to protect families from a "cliff effect." By designing the increase to phase out incrementally as food prices rise to catch up with the higher benefit, Congress made a promise not to pull the rug out from underneath our nation's most vulnerable families. Under the proposed cut, this is exactly what would happen. A typical family of four would see their monthly benefits abruptly drop by some $54 per month. The SNAP offset has been offered as a funding source for a range of legislative proposals. Each time Congress dips into that well, the cut gets earlier -- and deeper -- for hungry families.

The fact that the proposed reduction in monthly SNAP benefits is not effective immediately does not lessen the impact on needy children, seniors and families. While the total number of people receiving SNAP benefits is expected to be much lower when the proposed cut takes effect because the economy will likely have improved, the need of individual participants still enrolled in the program will not be any less. SNAP participants must be income eligible to enroll. Whether a family is poor now or poor a few years from now when the cut would take place, the bottom line is that SNAP families struggle to afford enough to eat and cutting SNAP benefits will make it even harder.

When the Senate votes today, they will decide whether to prevent cuts to Medicaid and teachers or prevent cuts in SNAP. Many have lamented the "Sophie's Choice" of having to pick between funding one critical safety net program or another. But while that may be the choice the Senate is faced with today, let us be clear that Congress and the Administration have already made another more significant choice -- the choice to pit these programs against each other. As Ezra Klein made clear in his Washington Post piece last Friday, there are other ways to pay for Medicaid and teacher funding.

To the question of which is more important to low-income families -- Medicaid or SNAP -- the answer is both. To the question of what is more important for our nation's children -- teachers in the classroom or food to eat -- the answer is both. The decision Congress must really make is not whether to fund one of these critical programs over another but whether to protect our most vulnerable families over some other priority or interest.

While Congress and the Administration face tough choices about national priorities amid a challenging fiscal situation, they should never force cuts upon the low-income families least able to sustain them. No matter the merit of individual legislative proposals, they should not be advanced at the expense of hungry families. In a $3.5 trillion budget, Congress can and should look elsewhere to find funding.