Joco Opinion

Bob Sigman — The hunger safety net is critical

Updated: 2013-08-20T20:34:14Z

By BOB SIGMAN

Special to The Star

The recent hullabaloo over reductions in food stamps touched very little on one of the most important issues in the debate: hungry children.

Members of Congress should know, if they don’t, the impact of their deeds right here in Kansas. More than 74 percent of Kansans who receive food stamps (currently known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) are in families with children.

Children do not choose their economic circumstances. If they are born into a low-income or under-employed family, they live the life that is dealt them. If there is not enough food, they suffer hunger and long-term harm.

“New research suggests SNAP benefits that go to children not only reduce poverty and ameliorate the current impact of hunger,” said the United Community Services of Johnson County, which has tracked SNAP benefits, “but they also help prevent the lasting negative effects of experiencing hardship during early childhood.’’

Research also shows that children who do not have enough nutritious food face health issues, among them asthma and depression. Conversely, children who have a healthful diet are less likely as adults to suffer problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

The longer term effects of childhood hunger have been examined by Hilary W. Hoynes, University of California, Davis, and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of Northwestern University. They studied adults who were in their 30s to 50s, some of whom had been in the safety net program in the 1960s and 1970s, and some who had not.

Their investigation showed that children in families who received food stamps had markedly better health as adults, including fewer cases of obesity and diagnoses of diabetes and other chronic conditions.

“In particular,’’ they reported, “we found that access to food stamps mattered most in early childhood, through ages three to five.’’

So when SNAP funding is reduced, as it is scheduled to be in the next several weeks, children and other vulnerable people are likely to be deprived of a basic need. In addition to the plight of children, about 25 percent of those living in families receiving SNAP assistance are elderly or disabled.

SNAP participants in Johnson County are among those who will be affected by the cutbacks. In January there were 22,900 of them, up considerably from 14,000 in 2009. The increase was driven by the many job losses during the economic downturn.

Critics of SNAP complain that recipients shun work. The data show that more than half of the 316,000 Kansans who were registered for SNAP in January were in working families.

SNAP benefits? The federal government is hardly giving away the store. Last year each member of SNAP households in Kansas received an average monthly benefit of $125.11, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That provided $1.39 a meal.

Unfortunately, children of SNAP recipients do not have the lobbying power of, say, corporations pressing for tax and spending reductions. Our own Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Republican whose Third District includes Johnson County, voted against an amendment in June that would have added $20.5 billion to SNAP. The amendment failed.

Yoder’s tea party supporters undoubtedly appreciated his vote. The children, probably not so much.

SNAP legislation is to be taken up again when Congress returns from its break next month.

Providing enough funding for SNAP is critical for our children today and for their future as adults. And, consequently, for our nation’s future.

Freelancer Bob Sigman writes in this space once a month.

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