Private charity can’t raise enough to feed the hungry
November 14, 2013 7:20 PM
By Melinda Henneberger
Hey, Congressman, can you spare a can of beans for the kids whose food stamps you cut? No?
The second-floor lobby of the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington would seem a promising place to hold a Thanksgiving food drive for the Capital Area Food Bank.
After all, both House Republicans and Senate Democrats have plans to reduce food-stamp funding over the next 10 years, but the House Republicans want to cut $36 billion more. They talk about replacing government aid with compassionate conservatism, helping people toward independence, charity that’s private.
That charitable giving is so private, though, at least on this one morning in this setting, that just one Republican sent over food during the public showing of generosity. Two aides from the office of Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia added a couple of bags of canned goods to a cluster of boxes in a corner of the white marble lobby that overlooks the Capitol across the street.
Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., carried his macaroni-and-cheese and applesauce in himself, in a recyclable Safeway bag, unlike that plastic-bag-user Rep. David Price, D-N.C. One after another, the lawmakers who came stood under the bust of rabid populist and 17-year House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, and said how bad the need is — and how much worse it’s going to get.
Nearly a quarter of District of Columbia residents receive food vouchers good for about $1.40 a meal. Those using food stamps in America already have less this month than they did last month. When those $5 billion in Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program cuts went into effect Nov. 1, the district’s 144,000 recipients weren’t even notified so they could plan, according to Brian Banks of the Capital Area Food Bank, which serves about 37.5 million meals a year.
Democrats and Republicans working in a House-Senate conference committee to pass a farm bill aren’t arguing over whether but how much more to cut.
The upbeat organizers of the Capitol Hill food collection — the Hoops for Youth Foundation, the American League of Lobbyists and Columbia Books — definitely weren’t trying to make a partisan point, or embarrass those lawmakers who gave new meaning to the phrase “from the mouths of babes.”
Former congressman Jack Quinn, R-N.Y., who co-founded Hoops for Youth, and Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., did help the group get permission to use the Rayburn lobby, said Pax Wade of the Hoops for Youth Foundation.
Still, it was not a bipartisan event. “Kevin McCarthy [R-Calif.] was going to come,” said Paul A. Miller of Miller
[Rep. Jim McGovern] sees food stamps as part of the solution, whereas Republicans see it as the problem.
Wenhold Capitol Strategies, chairman of Hoops for Youth.
But Mr. McCarthy didn’t, so it fell to Democrats to make clear that Democrats aren’t doing all they should to end hunger, either.
“We’re all to blame” for hunger in “the richest country in the history of the world,” began Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who chairs the 60-member House Hunger Caucus, 11 of whom are Republicans.
He includes in that blame the president he campaigned for — the one who won’t respond to his requests to convene a gathering to come up with a plan. “We need more leadership from the White House, quite frankly,” he said. During the Obama presidential campaign in 2008, “I went to Iowa and said we’d end child hunger by 2015. We had little buttons that said that, and we’re not going to do it.”
But he sees food stamps as part of the solution, whereas Republicans see it as the problem.
“What’s angered me,” Mr. McGovern said — and he did seem angry — “is we don’t even agree on the facts; SNAP is one of the most efficiently run programs in the federal government. The majority of people on it are children, the disabled or senior citizens,” and most of the rest “are already working.” Yet the Republican focus is imposing new work requirements on SNAP recipients.
Mr. McGovern is on the conference committee trying to agree on a farm bill compromise between the House and Senate versions; funding for food stamps is the biggest obstacle to an agreement, and if no deal is struck by Jan. 1, some agriculture policy reverts to laws that go back to the 1930s, triggering changes that will include doubling the cost of a gallon of milk.
Fifteen companies — mostly law and lobbying firms — had been collecting food for the D.C. drive since the end of October and met their goal of 2,500 pounds that they said was inside a truck parked outside.
Next year, organizers said, near the end of the drive they might apply for a waiver from congressional ethics rules that would let them put collection boxes right in the members’ offices. The rule against doing so is intended to avoid even the appearance of quid pro quo, though lawmakers are not at high risk of feeling beholden to anti-poverty nonprofits.
For hungry Americans, the best-case scenario for the farm bill, Mr. McGovern says, “is a ‘do no harm’ response.”
Across town just a few minutes later, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was using that same phrase in a different context, at an anti-poverty event sponsored by the Heritage Foundation.
“We should at least pledge to do no more harm,” Mr. Lee said. Which to him means cutting the safety net that too many are trapped in and instead connecting “underprivileged families to new opportunities in the free market and civil society.”
Like the safety net of churches. Every one of which, according to Bread for the World’s David Beckmann, would have to come up with an extra $15,000 every year for the next 10 years just to meet current need. And that’s an awful lot of boxes to fill with instant mashed potatoes and enchilada sauce.
Melinda Henneberger is a columnist for The Washington Post.