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The food stamp bomb falls as Congress plays games

November 04, 2013|By Michael Hiltzik
  • Does Congress care about her? Answer: No. Ausara Mudahy, 2, whose mother works two jobs and receives food stamp assistance, at the dinner table in Culver City.
Does Congress care about her? Answer: No. Ausara Mudahy, 2, whose mother… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

No one expected Congress to step in and avert the sharp cuts in food stamp benefits that kicked in  Friday. We're beyond expecting anything from this Congress on short notice except for grandstanding and spurts of inaction.

But it's proper to remind ourselves of what happened to the one-in-five Americans who still depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for help putting food on the table. 

We reported earlier that on Nov. 1 food stamp benefits were to be cut by $5 billion for this fiscal year. The cut of 15% across the board means a loss of 21 meals a month for a family of four. About 47 million Americans are directly affected.

This hits not only the families but grocers and other merchants who benefit from food stamp revenue. SNAP is, after all, an economic stimulus program -- the benefits being cut now were increased by the 2009 stimulus package.  

As my colleague Walter Hamilton reported, the cuts will be felt by groceries ranging from the corner mom-and-pop to Wal-Mart, which gets about 18% of food stamp spending. 

The behemoth retailer tried to put the best face on the cuts by claiming that customers with less food dollars in their pockets will look for bargains elsewhere, and that's good for Wal-Mart. "When price is more important, we're more relevant," its chief executive said.

It would be nice if Wal-Mart saw its customer base's misfortunes as more than merely a sales opportunity, but you can't teach a tick not to suck blood. In any case, economic analysts observe that the last thing Wal-Mart or any other retailer needs right now is more sand in the gears as the Christmas season approaches.

So where's Congress? It's busily carrying on about the hitches in the Obamacare rollout. This would be useful if the members actually were interested in getting to the bottom of the problem, and proposing solutions. But a viewing of Wednesday's inquisition of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius dashes that hope.

If Sebelius was able to get two answers out before getting interrupted by GOP members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, that's a lot. Our favorite moment was delivered by Rep. William Shimkus of Illinois, who demanded to know how customer shopping for a health insurance policy on the exchange could make sure that the policies don't cover abortion.

Sebelius could have answered that individuals who don't want an abortion or don't want theirs covered could, you know, not put in a claim, rather than worrying that they would be sullied by the chance that their own insurer was providing benefits to strangers. Instead, she showed restraint by treating the question as an intelligent one.

Shimkus could better demonstrate concern for the unborn and the newly born by demanding that mothers, and their children once born, get the best nutrition they can. But where's the political advantage in that?

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email.


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