07/01/2012 02:27 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2012

Hunger Is an Economic and Moral Concern

Peter Goodman's startling piece "'Back At Square One': As States Repurpose Welfare Funds, More Families Fall Through Safety Net" reported on the many failures of 1996's welfare reform, which created time limits and work rules for cash recipients and allowed states to make their own decisions regarding eligibility. As reported -- Georgia seized this opportunity and for many years, Georgia has considered itself a leader in reducing the number of people obtaining cash assistance, even during levels of high unemployment and hard economic times.

None of the horrors of Goodman's reporting surprised me, although the reminders never fail to disturb me. I am heartened that so many people have reached out to the author to ask how to help this woman and her baby, but I want them to understand how many more there are like her. And how the policies being debated in congress today will either help support families like hers and help them back on their feet, or help push them over the edge. A month ago the Senate voted on the Rand Paul amendment to "block grant" the food stamp program; or, in other words, to turn it into another TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) program which would allow states to take money intended to help our most vulnerable neighbors and divert it to cover their budget gaps. While they voted to table the amendment for the time being, it is expected to come up again. The threat is very real -- to diminish or destroy the only real program that's left of the safety net. To have babies living on juice and water for two days in a row.

I began working as a Legal Aid attorney in 1997, and witnessed the complete abandonment of the TANF program first hand. Advocates for the poor, for the struggling, for those who live on the margins, fought for many years to keep people on the TANF program after the changes in '96, arguing about work requirements, inappropriate "sanctions" and the like. But then at some point, everyone just gave up. While DFCS offices were telling people "you're too good for TANF", advocates were telling them "don't even apply -- TANF no longer exists in Georgia." We all turned our attention to the food stamp program (also known as SNAP), and now we've discovered this previously well-regarded program that has historically received bipartisan support is now the favorite straw man for balancing the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it.

In my current role as the advocacy director for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, I work on behalf of what our elected officials like to call the "private charities", the nonprofits that are expected to pick up the slack if we cut or block grant the food stamp program. Our food distribution -- that is, what we are providing to our network of food pantries and meal programs -- has grown over 30 percent each year for the last two years, and the demand only continues to rise. The congregations and agencies that make up the bulk of our network often tell us that they have nothing left to give and cannot simply cannot "fill in the gaps" as many often suggest. And with a gap of $4 billion dollars, it's hard to imagine that anyone thinks this is feasible. Across the country, food banks are being asked to do more with significantly less. And though need continues to grow, still the cuts keep coming while our elected officials advocate for balancing the budget on the backs of weary local congregations.

So what are people who can't find a job doing? How do they feed their children? The story of the woman in Goodman's piece paints a bleak but accurate picture of what some are driven to. TANF and food stamps were intended to be a "safety-net" that catches people and helps them get back on their feet. Most participant households include children, elderly or the disabled -- 75 percent of households receiving food stamps have a child in them. The economic costs of people going hungry are well-documented -- hunger costs our nation at least $167.5 billion per year because of lost economic productivity, poor education outcomes and unnecessary health care costs. But hunger is more than an economic issue; it's a moral concern. I believe that if we all put politics aside, most people do truly care what happens to their neighbors. And if they want to help Ms. Butler, and those in her situation, they will ask their elected officials to fully fund the programs that help them back on their feet. That allow them to feed their children. There are already too many tragic examples in the news these days of what happens when we blindly turn our heads away from those around us in need.