Political, Religious Leaders Urge Congress to Support Food Benefits Program

Politicians, religious leaders, and food experts made a call to Congress on Wednesday to increase its support for the federal government's Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), which helped some 50 million Americans feed their families last year.

The leaders met at a gathering in Washington, D.C. organized by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), who recently introduced H. Res 564 to Congress to emphasize the "critical importance" of the assistance program.

"In the wealthiest nation on earth, the number of working American families that go hungry is unconscionable," said Schakowsky. "The assistance SNAP provides can make all the difference in the world to a family trying to buy enough groceries for the month."

Data released by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) on Tuesday showed that nearly one in five Americans said there were times they didn't have enough money to buy food that they or their families needed in 2011.

The report further showed that food hardship is prevalent throughout the country, and even in "booming" states like North Dakota, where unemployment is at 3.3 percent, one in ten households still reported struggling with hunger.

"It turns out SNAP is not a snap," Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr. of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church said at the meeting. "There are too many partisan legislators who see cutting SNAP as a way of balancing the budget on the backs of poor people. We can't get help from members of Congress who care more about budget numbers than people."

"Our recent economic turbulence has rattled all sectors of our economy and every socioeconomic group, Schakowsky said. "It is in our economic best interest to maintain strong SNAP funding."

The Illinois Democrat further added that she has been "shocked" by recent comments some Republican politicians have directed at "many struggling Americans."

Food benefits have become a contentious political issue in recent weeks, especially within the GOP presidential race.

Republican candidate Newt Gingrich has used the term "food stamp president" numerous times to blame the Obama administration for the expansion of the assistance program, which now serves more Americans than any time in history.

Candidate Rick Santorum has also drawn controversy for drawing parallels between food stamps and "minorities" and "black people" during his campaign.
Last week, Santorum told a Michigan crowd that he planned to, "talk to minority communities, not about giving them food stamps and government dependency, but about creating jobs so that they can participate in the rise of this country."

President Obama, meanwhile, has defended himself saying that he doesn't "put people on food stamps" but that more Americans have become eligible for the service during the difficult economic times.

"First of all, I don't put people on food stamps. People become eligible for food stamps. Second of all, the initial expansion of food-stamp eligibility happened under my Republican predecessor, not under me," the president said in an interview with ABC in late January.

Data from the Department of Agriculture verifies President Obama's remarks, showing that nearly half a million more people received food stamp assistance under the Bush administration than during his presidency, which has seen 14.2 million people added to the program. The data further showed that the number of people receiving assistance began to decrease last fall.

Meanwhile, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said that he would consider giving states the power to administer funds for food assistance and other entitlement services such as Medicaid and housing vouchers through federal block grants.

"I'm going to say, 'Is this program better handled at the state or local level than the federal level?'" Romney said at a meeting in Michigan while describing one of his approaches to reducing federal spending.

Gilda Z. Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Human Services, told the Associated Press that such a proposal makes nervous.

"My concern is that sometimes, in the political climate in our state, political decisions are being driven by people who base these decisions on an ideology that don't necessarily mesh with some of the needs that we may have in the state," she said.

Both Gingrich and Santorum have also said that they would change Medicaid into a state run program if they were elected.

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