President’s budget lacks compassion for hungry Americans

Although President Donald Trump’s released budget for fiscal year 2019 was not good news for low-income Americans, last year’s proposal from the White House prepared us to expect massive cuts to safety net programs like SNAP (formally known as food stamps) and Medicaid. This year, the administration proposed the extra step to not only take away 27 percent of SNAP nutrition assistance many families rely on, but to replace the loss with a massive delivery program for “Harvest Boxes,” pre-packaged food in lieu of placing money on EBT cards to let people shop at grocery stores. Approximately 16.4 million households — about 81 percent of SNAP households — would be impacted by the plan. 

When White House budget director Mick Mulvaney compared the proposed Harvest Box to the Blue Apron company model, he insultingly used the language of the elite to gloss over the problems of people in poverty. According to Blue Apron’s website, patrons may “choose from a variety of chef-designed, step-by-step recipes every week” and receive “fresh, seasonal ingredients delivered right to your door.” 

Trump’s box would provide the opposite. Instead of being able to select fresh food based on nutritional needs, SNAP households would receive an assortment of shelf-stable goods such as peanut butter, pasta, beans, canned fruits, and milk chosen by someone who has never met their family.

The president’s plan shows a tremendous lack of understanding of what it’s like to be chronically hungry. Most importantly, this policy ignores a basic sense of human dignity. Lessons learned from food pantries teach us that the very attempt to give clients choices – however limited – makes a tremendous difference to a person’s sense of self-worth. Introducing a demoralizing system that then robs people of choice would undercut personal motivation and introduce more hurdles to nutrition. 

A life of poverty is already filled with logistical obstacles and stigma. It is exceptionally cruel to add hardship that makes it emotionally and physically more difficult for kids to excel at school and for adults to hold secure employment.

The Harvest Box concept is blind to basic problems that low-income citizens commonly face. What happens if you move frequently and don’t have a consistent address? What if you don’t have reliable gas or electricity to cook pasta and beans? What if you don’t have a secure place to receive mail and your box is stolen or ruined by the elements? Those questions are merely the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who has spent time volunteering with struggling families or being food insecure themselves could fill a page with more considerations.

It’s clear the administration didn’t consult with health experts for the well being of our most vulnerable population. The list of boxed items specifically names three foods commonly problematic for allergies and intolerances. Even if there were an efficient way to customize for diet restrictions, there’s no getting around the fact that eating the same processed foods without variety invites a rise in health problems that people in poverty can hardly afford to treat, especially if Medicaid is slashed by the proposed 22 percent. 

Perhaps the ill-conceived Harvest Box plan isn’t really expected to pass and it’s simply a political strategy to distract from deep benefit cuts to offset tax credits for the wealthy. Regardless, it’s yet another example of how opponents of food assistance repeatedly ignore the multi-faceted problem of hunger and shame people on SNAP for the simple act of trying to feed their families.

It’s time to call Senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill as well as Representatives Lacy Clay, Ann Wagner, and Blaine Luetkemeyer before Congress submits its own budget plan. Let them know that the repeated attempts to punish impoverished families by slashing SNAP and Medicaid are unjust and unacceptable. Urge them to make it clear to the president and congressional leadership that they, too, won’t stand for any attempt to unravel anti-poverty programs. 

Cynthia Levin is the leader of RESULTS Greater St. Louis and Southern Illinois Group and a former member of RESULTS/RESULTS Educational Fund Board of Directors.