MICHELLE HUGHES: Austerity is no excuse for neglecting hungry children
Posted June 5
EDITOR'S NOTE: Michelle Hughes is the executive director of NC Child, a statewide child advocacy organization.
In the first few weeks of my oldest child’s life, she had difficulty nursing. Fifteen years later, I remember exactly how I felt—fearful, guilty, and helpless. My child was hungry and I could not feed her. As a parent, I would not wish those feelings on anyone.
Unfortunately, today in every community across North Carolina, there are parents who go to bed at night – anxious, stressed, and exhausted -- wondering how they will feed their children at the end of week. They worry over how they will stretch the budget until the end of the month.
A provision in the state Senate budget needlessly makes life harder for these families. The Senate’s proposal cuts eligibility for federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps) for more than 133,000 individuals; 51,345 are children. A significant portion of the children who would lose the benefits would also lose free or reduced school lunch, since eligibility for that program is tied to SNAP enrollment in some cases.
The families who lose this assistance, quite simply, need it. While most are working, their wages are low and they struggle to make ends meet. The majority of households that would lose benefits make between 130 and 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Line. For a family of three, that’s a household income between $26,546 and $30,630 per year. The average assistance each household receives is $68.74 per month.
Managing a monthly household budget at this income level – particularly with a child – is juggling with little room for error. In an instant, everything can come crashing down. The car breaks down. An emergency room visit. An aging parent in need of help. The problems of everyday life can throw a family that’s just barely getting by into financial chaos.
These families make choices daily about whether to pay rent or buy food, to pay the power bill or take their kid to the doctor. In the midst of hard financial decisions, the nutrition assistance helps families provide the healthy food their children need to grow strong and thrive at school.
Most confusing about the Senate provision is that the benefits to be cut are 100 percent federally-funded. Eliminating them does not save one penny in the state budget or free up state funds for other programs. Particularly with no impact on state spending, it is difficult to understand why lawmakers would want to restrict access to such critical assistance for children.
Furthermore, North Carolina is hardly in a position to send these benefits back to the federal government. We are one of the hungriest states in the country—more than 1 in 5 children live in households that struggle to consistently put enough food on the table. If children lose this assistance along with access to free or reduced lunch at school, we could see a significant increase in the number of children experiencing hunger.
No child should go to bed hungry in North Carolina. Period. We may have a long way to go to ensure each child has the nutrition they need, but surely we won’t allow food to be taken out of the mouths of the 51,000 kids who are currently getting assistance. Even the most austere approach to policy and budgeting should protect our hungry children.
The good news is that the state House has approved its budget proposal without including the provision to restrict access to the nutrition assistance.
As House and Senate budget writers work out the differences between the two proposals to develop a final state budget, negotiators should follow the House’s lead and preserve children’s access to food.