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Congress Plays Hunger Games with Our Vets

Friday, November 22, 2013

If you fast-forward your TV during the celebrity segments on Real Time with Bill Maher, you probably missed an important conversation during the November 15th episode driven by actor Casey Affleck.

Affleck plays a veteran in his new movie “Out of the Furnace,” and he has started discussing issues that affect returning veterans, including mental health, homelessness and hunger. During the Bill Maher segment he discussed the farm bill and the House proposal to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

As Affleck noted, about a million veterans are getting nutrition assistance through SNAP.  Our colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimate that 900,000 veterans benefit from SNAP assistance each month, but the Center admits that its number is probably too low because the Census does not capture homeless veterans receiving SNAP benefits.

Under the nutrition bill that the House passed in September, 3.8 million Americans would lose access to SNAP benefits next year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculates. About 170,000 of them would be veterans, CBPP says.

This is at a time when unemployment among recent veterans has been trumping the national rate by nearly three percentage points. According to the most recent reckoning by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Gulf War II-era veterans (those who served since September 2011) is 10 percent, more than one third higher than the national rate of 7.3 percent.

The House-passed nutrition bill also contains a provision colloquially known as the Southerland amendment [after its sponsor, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.)]. The amendment allows states to kick people off SNAP if they aren’t employed or in a job-training program and use half the savings whatever way the state sees fit. With unemployment among veterans at 10 percent, this provision would have a dramatic effect on them and their families. The amendment passed with overwhelming Republican support.

In both the Senate and House, efforts to restore SNAP cuts in the farm bill fell short. As Affleck noted, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) offered an amendment to the Senate bill that would have restored its SNAP cuts by reducing generous taxpayer-funded subsidies that go to the insurance industry to sell and administer crop insurance policies. In the House, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) tried to restore that chamber’s much more draconian SNAP cuts by eliminating the incredibly generous “shallow loss” crop insurance and “target price” programs for growers. 

Too often, cuts to SNAP are framed as budgetary savings, even though every dollar spent on SNAP generates $1.73 across the economy. At a time when veterans have great health and employment needs, Congress could easily achieve real and substantial savings by making common sense reforms to crop insurance and agricultural subsidies including those proposed by Gillibrand and McGovern – rather than finding ways to kick more Americans off needed assistance, including those who have already sacrificed so much for our country.

Note: Photo by ISAF Public Affairs