Thursday, September 12, 2013

Lord, When Was It that You Were on Food Stamps?

“Then the Lord will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Matthew 25:41-46

Last night I was at an emergency meeting for Project Outreach, a community service organization based at The Open Table of Christ United Methodist Church in Providence. Project Outreach is the largest single food distribution program in Rhode Island. In a typical month they distribute over 20,000 pounds of food to 450 unduplicated families. This includes 1400 individuals and about 200 visits per week. In addition to food distribution, Project Outreach also works with partners to provide medical care, job training, life skills, and advocacy.

The meeting, like many of our meetings, was focused on money. Compared to the work that gets done and the people who are helped, the budget is tiny, less than $75,000 per year. But raising money is never easy and raising money to feed poor people is particularly challenging, and we are behind. Way behind. Reluctantly, we had to make reductions in our staffing. The reductions will not balance the budget, but they will slow the flow of red ink.

This morning, I received an urgent message from Bread for the World, alerting me to a plan now before congress to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, by $40 billion over the next decade.

According to Bread for the World, this will mean:
  • Across the country, 2 to 4 million adults without dependents would lose benefits. SNAP already has strict work requirements but this proposal would require individuals to find work at times when jobs are scarce. 
  • Nearly 2 million more people, primarily seniors and those in low-income working families, would lose benefits due to changes in eligibility rules. 
  • In 2011, private churches and charities provided approximately $4 billion in food assistance, compared to $98 billion provided by federal nutrition programs. Churches and charities would have to nearly double their current food assistance to make up the difference
Lately it seems that Congress seldom lacks for bad ideas, but this is one of the worst. Food Stamps are good for the country in at least three ways. First, they reduce hunger and provide a modest safety net in a time of economic uncertainty displacement. Second, they stimulate the economy. One of the reasons that the current recession has not been worse is that government subsidies like Food Stamps have helped to limit the drop in consumer demand, which stimulates the economy. And Food Stamps are a particularly effective stimulus, since we know that they will be spent and the money will go back into the economy. Some estimates show that every dollar spent on Food Stamps stimulates a boost to the economy of $1.73, far more than the estimated gain of $1.23 from tax cuts. Finally, Food Stamps help the country by helping children grow into healthier adults who will contribute to society.

Food Stamps are, almost literally, the best thing since sliced bread.

But beyond all of that, for Christians this is a no-brainer.

Matthew tells us that in one of his last public appearances before his crucifixion, Jesus told a parable of judgment. The message was simple. We will meet Christ in “the least of these,” the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned. And we will be judged by how we treat those who are suffering.

The House of Representatives will vote soon. If you want to influence that vote you can go to the Bread for the World website and use their convenient link to contact your representative.

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