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Harsh changes to food assistance are unworkable in North Carolina

Brenda Howerton is a Durham County commissioner and president of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.
Brenda Howerton is a Durham County commissioner and president of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.

For decades, Republicans and Democrats have worked together to create bipartisan Farm Bill legislation that helps both the people who grow the crops and food we buy in the grocery store and those who are struggling to put dinner on the table.

But this year some lawmakers ended that bipartisan commitment to feeding the hungry, proposing instead excessive and expensive restrictions to food assistance that are nothing more than cuts in disguise – to the tune of $19 billion.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, helps more than 1,365,000 North Carolinians afford essential food and groceries. The majority of SNAP participants in our state — 70 percent — are families with children.

That’s why here in Durham County, we’ve made it a priority to invest in programs that help all eligible families, seniors and people with disabilities access SNAP, as well as in effective job and education training programs that support better employment. This year’s Farm Bill should do the same.

The current version of the Farm Bill in the House will take SNAP away from those who need it the most while undermining all the progress we’ve made in North Carolina by imposing a woefully underfunded mandate on the state government, forcing us to shift resources within SNAP to accommodate unproven and untested new requirements.

Lawmakers pushing for this version of the bill claim it is a jobs bill, but that completely ignores both the purpose of nutrition programs and the realities of our economy on the ground. The truth is half of North Carolinians participating in SNAP are working families. Many SNAP participants work minimum or low-wage jobs that simply don’t pay enough to get by, lack benefits and provide inconsistent hours.

That’s why SNAP is so important. It keeps roughly 8 million people, including 4 million children, out of poverty, and it’s especially essential to the economic well-being of women and moms who face disadvantages in the workforce because they are often the primary caregivers for the rest of the family.

Even if a single mom is working as many hours as her job will give her, she still might not be able to make ends meet and make sure her kids have enough to eat if she is in a low-wage occupation and can’t find affordable child care. And if this version of the Farm Bill becomes law, falling short of the required number of working hours just once would mean losing SNAP for a full year. Doing so a second time means a three-year penalty.

These harsh, punitive restrictions do nothing to help women earn more or to support our local economy. They will only increase hunger in our community.

In Durham, we are working to help SNAP beneficiaries get the skills they need to find better paying jobs and hopefully get out of the cycle of low-wage work by partnering with Durham Tech. With the college, we’ve built an Employment and Training Center on site that helps North Carolinians who are trying to better their skills or get job training. Instead of investing in programs like this that are working, the current version of the bill would make huge changes that would increase administrative costs and paperwork, waste taxpayer dollars and make it even harder to receive SNAP if you need it.

Just over a year ago, our county worked to implement a new mobile app, the Durham Social Services app, that helps our residents easily apply for benefits, including SNAP benefits. These improvements mean that the people who are already overwhelmed with worry about how to feed their families or the recent loss of a job can spend less energy trying to figure out how to receive SNAP and more time focused on finding a new job or their job training.

The current Farm Bill would take food assistance away from more than 2 million hungry Americans, including families with children over the age of 6, people with disabilities, women, veterans, and those already working. This attack on working families comes just months after the president and Republicans passed a $1.4 trillion tax giveaway to the wealthiest 1 percent and big corporations.

If our lawmakers can afford to give the richest tax payers in our state an average $41,510 tax cut this year, surely, we can also afford to invest in SNAP and other programs that help single moms, low-wage workers and families get enough to eat. Lawmakers in Washington must continue the American commitment to feeding the hungry and reject any version of the Farm Bill that includes cuts to SNAP. Instead, they should work to invest in effective education and training programs, raise the minimum wage, and work to make sure no one in our country goes hungry.

Brenda Howerton is a member of the Durham County Board of Commissioners.