Opinion | Opinion | Passover

Op-Ed: Keep the SNAP aid program strong

(JTA) — A well-known D.C. maxim advises that any economic stimulus must be timely, targeted and temporary. So as legislators begin drafting the 2012 Farm Bill, why are some proposing to cut a program that responds in direct relation to need, supports recipients for an average of just nine months, boasts an extremely low payment error rate and in the process generates $1.79 for every $1 spent?

In the case of SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps — it’s because we have let a politically devised gross mischaracterization define how most people understand the program.

This partisan rhetoric has only intensified lately because of the upcoming presidential election. In the midst of all the speechmaking, Congress seems primed to cut SNAP, which certainly will have a devastating impact on 50 million of our fellow Americans.

As leaders of national advocacy organizations, we cannot stand by while the health and well-being of one of every six American men, women and children are threatened. As leaders of Jewish advocacy organizations, we are further compelled to act by the arrival of Passover, a holiday that opens with an invitation to “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

If we do nothing to confront the prevailing rhetoric or challenge cuts to SNAP in the next Farm Bill, we not only will be abandoning our principles but also dishonoring the sincerity of our Passover invitation.

Every five years, the Farm Bill reauthorization process gives us a chance to re-examine our national priorities with regard to food. The bill has far-reaching impact, containing an array of titles that cover the whole process, from seed to table. Simply, the bill brings the bounty of our country’s farms to the tables of rich and poor. One of the primary ways it reaches the latter is through SNAP, which provides food assistance to those who might otherwise not have enough resources to eat. And this vital program accomplishes its function with great success.

SNAP is specifically designed to be responsive to economic conditions — to expand when the U.S. economy is weak and unemployment is high, and then to contract when the economy improves and more people are back to work. What could be timelier than providing help only when people need it?

Moreover, this help is provided with great efficiency. Exemplary among government programs, SNAP has a nearly unparalleled record of program integrity and a historically low improper payment rate of just 3.8 percent. This means more than 96 percent of SNAP benefits are accurately and appropriately delivered to those who are eligible to receive them.

For this highly targeted group of people, SNAP is nothing short of a lifesaver that spares them from having to choose between food and other necessities such as rent, utilities and health care.

A program, then, that saves lives so effectively deserves to have its story told with facts, not distorted narrative. Contrary to what some would have you believe, for the vast majority of the 46 million Americans currently on SNAP (over half of whom are children or seniors), the program serves not as a permanent handout from the government but a temporary bridge to get past hard times. On average, SNAP recipients transition off the program in nine months — receiving benefits just long enough to find a new job or get back on their feet.

But the best way to reduce reliance on SNAP is to build a stronger economy, and strengthening SNAP is one of the surest ways that Congress can contribute to our recovery. The money these families spend on food quickly goes directly into their local economy, helping to support the community and stave off further unemployment.

In addition, according to a recent census report, in 2010 SNAP helped lift 3.9 million people out of poverty. Instead of feeding a cycle of poverty, SNAP helps prevent people from being enslaved by one.

At Passover we are reminded that we once were slaves but now we are free. Like the liberty our ancestors won, millions fewer Americans feel the oppression of hunger because of SNAP. But this accomplishment, worthy of celebration as it is, is not enough. Far too many Americans still struggle with hunger, and even more will do so if funding for SNAP is cut. And so we must continue to be vigilant.

For the fourth year, our organizations are sponsoring more than 50 Hunger Seders (www.HungerSeder.org ) taking place in communities across the country that will increase awareness about hunger and urge participants to take action. On March 29 we hosted the National Hunger Seder at the Capitol that united members of Congress, administration officials and national anti-hunger advocates in our commitment to freedom from hunger for all Americans.

If the Farm Bill sets the priorities for our national harvest, then from our perspective SNAP gives us a legislative means of realizing our biblical commandment to leave the “gleanings of your harvest” for “the poor and the stranger” (Lev. 23:22).  By strengthening SNAP, we help fulfill that sacred mandate with a response that is timely, targeted and temporary. And in ensuring freedom from hunger, we also honor the Passover holiday now upon us.

(Rabbi Steve Gutow is the president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community. Abby Leibman is the president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing and alleviating hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds.)