Kentucky voices: Food stamps a lifeline during tough economy

As our elected leaders in Washington continue to grapple with deficit reduction and make decisions on federal spending and priorities, we hope they will remember that the people impacted by those decisions are just as important as the numbers on the balance sheet.

Our nation's economy is struggling to recover from the worst recession in decades, and families across America are still hurting. Unemployment remains at 8.5 percent nationally and 9.4 percent in Kentucky, and many who were once comfortably middle class or at least managing to get by now have had to turn to federal programs for help feeding their families.

At God's Pantry Food Bank we see this firsthand every day with 23 percent of our neighbors, including one in four children, facing hunger.

They include people like Stacy, who cuts hair for a living, but due to the economic downturn has seen her hours cut again and again. She has never needed help caring for herself and her 9-year-old daughter before, but this drastic reduction in her work schedule and wages forced her to an emergency food pantry for the first time last year.

While we distribute more than 2 million pounds of food each month through our network of pantries, kitchens and shelters, our food bank could not meet the need without strong federal anti-hunger programs.

Fortunately, SNAP (formerly known as the food stamp program) has responded quickly and effectively during the recession to help ensure Kentucky families, children and seniors have enough to eat.

Much attention has been given lately to the fact that participation has grown significantly in recent years. But one need only look at the unemployment rolls to understand why. It is only shocking that SNAP participation grew by 53 percent from 2006 to 2010 if you fail to mention that the ranks of the unemployed grew by 110 percent over the same period.

SNAP benefits are responsive, targeted, and temporary. The average amount of time a participant spends on SNAP is 9 months, and 84 percent of all benefits go to households with a child, elderly person or disabled person.

Benefits are not overly generous — the average household gets a monthly benefit of $287 or about $1.49 per person per meal.

There are a lot of myths circulating about SNAP and the people who receive benefits. Not only do these pernicious myths further stigmatize the program, they are also being promoted as justification for policy changes and budget cuts that would make it harder for struggling families to put food on the table.

While we often hear the sensational stories of program abuse, the fact is that these examples are rare and that for every allegation of fraud, there are thousands of stories of heartbreaking need: parents who have lost their jobs, seniors who have seen a lifetime of savings decimated by market downturns or exhausted by medical costs, people who never thought they would need a helping hand, but who now have nowhere else to turn.

Not only is food our most basic human need, but we are a compassionate nation. Fighting hunger has long been an issue on which both Republicans and Democrats could agree. None of us want to see our friends and neighbors go hungry. In addition to exemplifying the best of our national values, investing in hunger relief makes sense fiscally.

Hunger increases health care costs, lowers worker productivity, harms children's development and diminishes their educational performance. We urge our nation's leaders to work together to protect and strengthen anti-hunger programs like SNAP, and to join us at God's Pantry or one of our 200 sister organizations across the country to see the real faces of hunger and meet the people whose lives will be affected by the decisions they make.