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Targeting of food stamp  program is hard to swallow

BrendGoldie Cedar Lake shops down aisle with LED lights floor maintained by water not wax just after gropening new Strack

Brenda Goldie of Cedar Lake shops down a aisle with LED lights and a floor maintained by water not wax just after the grand opening of the new Strack & Van Til grocery in Cedar Lake, Ind. Thursday May 16, 2013. The store, which was built by LEED environmental standards, is a welcome opportunity for residents who have been without a grocery store for about three years. | Stephanie Dowell~Post-Tribune

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Updated: October 11, 2013 6:13AM

At a time when record numbers of people need help to buy food, it’s a little pathetic that Congress is wasting time and burning moral capital debating the value of the nation’s food stamp program.

But that’s what they’re up to. Conservative lawmakers, aided and abetted by the likes of Fox News, are pumping up outrage over abuses — proportionately relatively few — to support a House Republican plan to trim as much as $4 billion off the $80-billion-a-year Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, partly by adding drug testing and work requirements.

Last month, Fox News made a national figure of Jason Greenslate, a 29-year-old California surfer and aspiring musician who uses his $200-a-month food stamp benefit to buy such things as lobster.

But the freeloading Greenslate, who told Fox he wasn’t looking for a job, is hardly the face of food insecure America. Everything possible should be done to keep benefits out of the hands of people in voluntary poverty who don’t have jobs by choice. But the overwhelming majority of recipients are children, disabled people and older adults. Among the others are people who hold one or more low-paying jobs but still can’t make ends meet. The benefit isn’t huge — in Illinois it’s $367 a month for an average two-person family. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture says fraud rates are low.

The latest USDA data, released Friday, show that as of June, 47.76 million Americans ­were receiving food stamps, a 2.3 percent increase over last year. But a USDA study released Wednesday showed 49 million Americans lived in “food insecure” households last year, meaning they couldn’t always be sure where their next meal was coming from. By that yardstick, the number of people getting food stamps isn’t out of line.

Some lawmakers have raised the possibility of charities making up the difference if the SNAP program is trimmed by an estimated four million to six million people. But here in Chicago, charities already are straining to meet what continues to be record need. They simply don’t have the capacity to fill a gap of that size. The Greater Chicago Food Depository and its network of 650 programs would have to boost the number of meals they provide in Cook County by 50 percent to make up for the proposed 5 percent cut in food stamps.

It’s no surprise that the number of people receiving food stamps — actually electronic benefits that can be used like a debit card to buy groceries — has gone up as the economy has struggled in recent years. Studies have showed that SNAP enrollment roughly correlates with local unemployment rates, although there is a lag. The SNAP growth also is due in part to President Barack Obama’s stimulus program, which permitted waivers that expanded eligibility. But the stimulus bill expires in November, and many states already have discontinued the waiver program.

The SNAP program is a lifeline for people, including some who worked all their lives, who otherwise might face a choice between eating and buying medicine. In July, the Health Impact Project, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, said cuts in food stamps would lead to more health problems for Americans as they receive less nutrition. It would be shameful for the nation to turn its back on such citizens in an overhyped campaign against fraud, especially as Congress is poised to preserve large subsidies for wealthy farmers.

“It doesn’t feel there is as much attention on the amazing success of the [SNAP] program and the number of people who have used the program to rebound into successful lives,” said Kate R. Maehr, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, where food pantry visits are up 70 percent over five years ago.

That’s a story more lawmakers might want to take to heart.

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