In bills passed the last few years, callous Kansas and Missouri lawmakers have shown little regard for the increased struggles of low-income families to get enough to eat.
The GOP-controlled Kansas Legislature just days ago harshly agreed to reduce the lifetime limit for welfare to families from three to two years. Gov. Sam Brownback had signed the old three-year limit into effect in 2015. Soon, the new restriction will be three years less than allowed by federal law.
In Missouri, about 26,000 residents lost food stamp benefits last month for failing to comply with work and job training requirements. They took effect in 2016 after the Republican-dominated General Assembly enacted a law barring the state from waiving work requirements until 2019, overriding a veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon along the way.
These state lawmakers are doing exactly the opposite of what advocates for the poor had hoped. But there is no state or federal department for hunger, said Sandy Rikoon, dean of the College of Human Environmental Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security.
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People who are poor are essentially voiceless as federal and state lawmakers react to enormous pressure to decrease spending. Kansas and Missouri continue to show that cuts are done at the expense of the less well off.
But for the health of all people in Kansas and Missouri, policymakers should pay attention to reports that show food insecurity is a persistent post-recession problem.
A new Missouri Hunger Atlas 2016 report from Rikoon’s food security center lists the state with a food insecurity rate greater than 16 percent. That’s 1 million Missourians, or one in six persons, who lacked adequate access to enough food.
For adults, food insecurity can cause work absenteeism, income losses and increased health care costs. For children it can lower school performance.
A Feeding America report puts food insecurity in the U.S. at 15.4 percent, affecting 48.1 million Americans. In Kansas it’s 14.2 percent. Of the people in the 26-county service area for Harvesters — The Community Food Network, 15.3 percent of the population is at risk of hunger.
In the Kansas City area, food insecurity is highest in Jackson and Wyandotte counties. In juggling housing, utility, transportation and other expenses, food often is sacrificed.
With public aid reduced, people are turning to food pantries, soup kitchens and churches for help. The agencies are having a difficult time coming up with enough donated goods to keep up with the demand.
Sarah Biles, director of communications with Harvesters, said last year Harvesters took in and distributed 46 million pounds of food. This year the amount is expected to be more than 48 million pounds.
Hunger is a big and growing concern that lawmakers must take seriously. In Harvesters’ service area, the average cost of a meal has increased 4 percent in the last year to $2.83. The increase adds up, straining food budgets.
Solutions include lawmakers raising the minimum wage so salaries cover families’ expenses and provide enough food. The restrictions on welfare benefits also must be loosened to provide families and children with a safety net.
Lawmakers have the power to do all of this. They just need to find the political will.