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posted: 1/9/2014 5:00 AM

Hunger hurts us all

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Carly Poe is a 33-year-old single mother in Portland, Ore. Despite a college degree, she struggles to find work and raise a teenage son with serious medical problems. Food stamps -- the government program officially known as SNAP -- help her survive.

"We've been making ends meet with SNAP," she told The Oregonian. "It's a struggle and a worry every month, wondering how we're going to come up with the money."

"You deal with a lot of people who think, 'Oh, you're not working hard enough. You're lazy,'" Poe says. "(But) we're working really, really hard. There are a lot of people in tough positions where they're trying to better their lives, but they're just not able to make ends meet yet."

Congress should think hard about Carly Poe when it takes up the farm bill, which traditionally funds food stamps along with agricultural subsidies. The House-passed version of the measure slashes almost $40 billion from food stamp accounts, while the Senate cuts a modest $4 billion.

Normally lawmakers would split the difference, but that would be a huge mistake. SNAP is a critical program that deserves full funding and bipartisan support.

Statistics say why: One out of seven American households "struggle to put enough food on the table," according to Bread For the World, a major anti-hunger organization. The group also reports that "more than one in five children is at risk of hunger."

In November, however, extra funding for food stamps under President Obama's stimulus program ran out. That means Poe and her son have already lost $20 a month in benefits; a family of four lost $36. Any new cuts would only add to their worries.

The House bill is based on a fallacious premise that some Republicans have propounded for years: that many food stamp recipients are lazy "welfare queens" who don't want to work and live lavishly on government handouts.

"Frankly, it's wrong for hardworking, middle-class Americans to pay for that," Rep. Eric Cantor, the bill's main sponsor, said last fall.

We'd agree with Cantor if he was right. But he's not. Most food stamp beneficiaries are like Poe: ready and eager to work if they could only find a decent job.

Alleviating hunger is a profound moral imperative, especially at this time of year. But this issue goes beyond morality and beyond charity. Serving meals serves the national interest. Programs like food stamps benefit all of us.

Start with children. They're much healthier when they're not hungry. In denouncing the House bill last fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics argued that when children lack proper nutrition they incur "serious health problems that will persist throughout their adult lives and for decades to come."

We all pay for those problems, in expensive emergency room visits or higher insurance premiums. Plus, parents with sick kids are more distracted and less productive, so they earn less and pay lower taxes.

Sure, some people will always game the system. But in most cases, food stamps don't deter people from working. Quite the opposite.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, put it: "SNAP helped to keep nearly 4.9 million Americans out of poverty in 2012, including 2.2 million children, and has been a steppingstone for millions of Americans while they look for work and get back on their feet."

Moreover, food aid directly boosts a fragile economic recovery. It is spent immediately and circulates quickly -- to storekeepers, truckers, brokers, farmers. Moody's Analytics, an economic forecasting firm, estimates that every dollar in food stamp aid generates $1.73 in economic activity.

While they're at it, Congress should take a look at another huge reason for hunger: waste. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that "in the United States, 30 percent of all food ... is thrown away each year." And a recent Harvard study blames the current system of labels and expiration dates that "misleads consumers to believe they must discard food in order to protect their own safety."

Pope Francis recently weighed in on the issue, saying that discarded food could "feed all the hungry people of the world." In a message to the "cartoneros," homeless scavengers in his home country of Argentina, the Pope said, "We are living in a throwaway culture where we easily toss away not only things, but people."

We shouldn't toss away good food. And we shouldn't toss away good people like Carly Poe. If they want to work "really really hard," food stamps should help them do that.

2014, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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