No room for ‘grand bargains’ on food stamps: Hunger isn’t a bargaining chip


Tom ChamberlainBy Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO president 

Last month, I read two news articles that may not appear related at first, but that together tell an important story about the problems our country faces.

The first discussed the five-year effort to pass a farm bill in the U.S. House. The original House version of the bill would have cut $21 billion over the next decade from the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (food stamps).  That version failed. Progressives thought the cut was too deep. Tea Party conservatives thought it didn’t go far enough.

On July 12, the House passed a new version of the bill that cut funding for SNAP altogether.

That same day, I learned that as of January 2013, Portland had approximately 16,000 homeless people — up 5 percent over the last two years. Almost 1,900 of Portland’s homeless population live in cars, abandoned buildings or outside.  About 4,832 receive some kind of housing support. The others are lucky enough to have friends or family whose couches they can temporarily crash on.

These homeless Portlanders are not just the individuals you see on the street. More and more families are homeless, too.

According to a November 2012 Oregonian article, over 20,000 Oregon students are homeless. We know that a hungry child is thinking about food — not learning — when they’re sitting in a classroom.

Thousands of Oregonians have not recovered from the recession and are either unemployed or underemployed. The recovery has been strongest in low-paying industries, bringing down Oregon’s already-low median wage and leaving more families in need of assistance.

That brings us back to the farm bill and SNAP.

Over 800,000 Oregonians — 22 percent of our population — relied on this program in 2012. This is an increase of 8 percent.

SNAP funding has long been part of the farm bill for many reasons, including the support farmers receive when the poor are encouraged to by fresh foods at full price.  But it also creates a careful political balance, where leaders from both sides of the aisle can come together and support our farmers and the struggling families in their districts.

Unfortunately, in the age of “grand bargains” that use our lives as chips, this balance created a perfect place for anti-worker elitists to use the poor in our country as bargaining chips once again.

The most recent farm bill won’t pass in the Senate, which means there will be another vote on the bill. As you might predict, four of Oregon’s five members of Congress voted “no” on the version that cut out SNAP completely. But on the earlier $21 billion cut, only three of our U.S. representatives voted for Oregonians needing food assistance.

Before they vote again, Oregon’s Congressional delegation needs to walk the streets of our state and see the poor and disenfranchised, spend more time in Oregon schools and understand the impact of hunger on a student’s ability to learn, and spend a shift at an Oregon Food Bank. They need to understand the impact of their vote.

It is too easy for our congressmen and women to take political votes in support of bad bills, hoping their votes won’t lead to bad policy because the Senate will fix it or the president will veto it. But we send these Oregonians to Washington, D.C., to stand up for our state — to stand on our side.

When the farm bill has its next vote, we hope to see at least four, and ideally all five, of Oregon’s members of Congress standing for Oregonians, and not counting on the Senate to fix a bad bill or justifying a bad vote by calling it “good enough.”


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