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Congress beats up on the hungry

 Northern Illinois Food Bank staff volunteers organize donated food food bank St. Charles. | Sun-Times MediFile Photo~ courtesy Northern

Northern Illinois Food Bank staff and volunteers organize donated food at the food bank in St. Charles. | Sun-Times Media File Photo~ courtesy of the Northern Illinois Food Bank

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Updated: December 2, 2013 12:38PM

Friday will be a bad day to be hungry.

Starting Friday, food stamp benefits will be trimmed back because a temporary boost from the 2009 stimulus bill is expiring. More than 47 million Americans — one in seven — will see less food on their plates. A family of four, for example, will get $36 less a month. That might not seem like much until you consider the average household monthly benefit is only $287. The Congressional Budget Office expects spending on food stamps in fiscal 2014 to fall by $5 billion.

As a result, the Illinois Hunger Coalition says, more than 2 million Illinois residents — including about 349,000 seniors and 886,000 children — will have to tighten their belts just as home heating bills are about to soar.

And it could just be a step on the way to more cuts. Both houses of Congress have passed bills that would further trim food stamps, technically known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The House would cut food stamps by $4 billion a year and would tighten eligibility. The Senate bill would cut just $400 million. Talks on a compromise bill began Wednesday afternoon.

SNAP critics, alarmed that the government’s tab for food stamps has more than doubled since 2008 to almost $80 billion, say the program needs to be scaled back. But that’s not taking into account how many people are struggling financially. Although about 20 percent of the increase is due to the stimulus, which is ending, much of the rest is due to the struggling economy, as more people’s incomes drop to levels at which they qualify for aid.

The critics also point to people who legally qualify, but shouldn’t because they have other income, such as young adults who are still supported financially by parents. People who are under the poverty line essentially by choice because they’d rather do something else than get a job don’t deserve benefits.

Should Congress do all it can to root fraud and freeloaders out of the program? Of course. There are complaints of recipients selling SNAP benefits on Craigslist or failing to report new jobs or increases in pay. Because the electronic benefits transfer cards used to distribute benefits are not photo IDs, recipients can report them as stolen, sell them and get replacements. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, has empowered states to crack down on fraud. And though no program can be devised to prevent every last case of fraud, the USDA says fraud rates are low.

Now that Congress is beginning to negotiate further cuts in the program, lawmakers should keep in mind that the need for food aid is huge. Half of all adults and half of all children will receive SNAP benefits at some point in their lives. And the number of Americans who received food stamps last year is roughly the same as the total officially listed as poor, which suggests the program is doing its job.

If federal benefits are in fact cut further, already-strained local charities don’t have the capacity to make up the shortfall.

The Northern Illinois Food Bank, for example, served 42 million meals in the fiscal year ending June 30 — 27 percent more meals than in the previous year — through its network of 800 food pantries, soup kitchens and other programs. But there are limits on how frequently people can get meals at a food pantry, often just once a month.

The Greater Chicago Food Depository says 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 a 5 percent federal cut in food stamps. That’s not possible.

“Charities cannot fill the gap for the cuts being proposed to SNAP,” said Maura Daly of Feeding America, a network of the nation’s food banks. “We are very concerned about the impact on the charitable system.”

Most Americans will face joblessness, or battle to avoid poverty, at least part of their lives. The food stamp program is an important safety net for those people. Congress has every reason to try to squeeze out fraud, but deserving Americans should not go hungry in the process.

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