Just as the battle against childhood obesity starts to score some victories, the narrow political agenda of House Republicans threatens to undercut the progress.
A Centers for Disease Control report found that obesity was on the decline for children in 18 of the 40 surveyed states, the first reported decline in years. But those gains are jeopardized by ideologically extreme Republicans who have committed to shredding the American safety net, with special zeal for destroying the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps.
After the House failed to ram through a farm bill that made $20 billion in cuts to the program and then shamefully passed a farm bill that failed to reauthorize the program for the first time in 40 years, the Republican chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, has announced that he will propose legislation that would slash food stamp funding by $40 billion.
A study by the Health Impact Project found that the proposed $20 billion cut would eliminate 5 million people from the program, increase poverty, contribute to food insecurity for millions of children and cost billions in preventable health care expenses.
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The new House Republican proposal would cut off aid to even more recipients by eliminating waivers, which states use in times of high unemployment, to ease the strict work requirements for aid. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report found that the new proposal would cut aid to an additional 2 million to 4 million low-income individuals, including 88,000 Kentuckians.
"The extreme cuts would hurt Kentuckians who are participating in SNAP who can't find a job regardless of whether they are looking for a job or not," said Ashley Spalding of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, who said that Kentucky has one job for every three job seekers.
The cuts in government nutrition assistance would come as private food donation programs are already stretched thin. "We're very concerned with any cuts to the SNAP program at a time when one in six Kentuckians don't know where their next meal is coming from. We're barely keeping up with the pace of the demand," said Tamara Sandberg, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Food Banks.
Such draconian cuts would penalize the disabled, elderly, working adults and children who make up 92 percent of food stamp recipients.
And, counter to Republican demands for fiscal responsibility, the proposed cuts would incur much greater health costs down the line. More children would grow up with heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure from diets of cheap starches and highly processed foods, as well as with developmental disabilities resulting from poor nutrition in the early years.
Cutting nutrition assistance expenditures, which inject $1.70 into the economy for every dollar spent, would also weaken the already tepid economic recovery by hurting consumer spending.
The advances against childhood obesity could easily be reversed by policies that force low-income families to buy even cheaper food with less nutritional value for their children. Already, the obesity rates are much higher among low-income preschoolers (one in seven) and minorities (nearly one in five for black preschoolers) than the national average of one in eight. Worsening this inequality would be nothing to be proud of.
Congress would do well to recoil from the spiteful and unnecessary cuts that will increase poverty, inflate deficits and worsen the lives of millions. And Republicans should stop elevating extreme agendas over the health of children.