Congress Must Protect Hungry People
Since the 112th Congress convened this January, legislators have been closely focused on budget and spending issues. At press time, Congress had not yet finalized a spending bill to cover the remainder of fiscal year (FY) 2011, which ends September 30, 2011.
Bread for the World is deeply concerned about the House’s passage of H.R. 1 in February. The bill would strip significant funding from programs important to hungry and poor people, both here at home and internationally. The vote on H.R. 1 was 235-189, with all but three Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed.
Fasting, Prayer, and Advocacy
On March 28, David Beckmann, president of Bread; Tony Hall, director of the Alliance to End Hunger; and other leaders began a water-only fast to draw attention to the harm that indiscriminate cuts to non-security discretionary spending would cause hungry and poor people. More than 15,000 grassroots activists and 42 organizations are participating in the fast.
“The debate about the federal deficit is really a debate about national priorities. We invite God to reshape our personal priorities and the priorities of our nation,” said Beckmann.
Low-income families are only slowly recovering from the economic recession. Participation in SNAP (formerly food stamps) is at an all-time high—one American in eight now receives help to buy groceries each month. The unemployment rate stalled near 10 percent for months. Another large group of people have jobs but do not earn enough to make ends meet. Low-income families simply cannot afford to sacrifice any further.
Funding for the Hunger Free Communities Program would be eliminated under H.R. 1. Bread members first advocated for the Hunger-Free Communities Act as part of our 2005 Offering of Letters. The grant program established for groups working collaboratively to end hunger in their communities got under way last year with $5 million in funding. One in seven U.S. households struggles to put food on the table; in many local communities with concentrated poverty, even higher percentages of families are at risk of hunger.
H.R. 1 would also cut two-thirds of the budget for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) contingency fund, which helps low-income households pay their heating bills. Even without taking into account the cut included in H.R. 1, LIHEAP has only enough funding for a quarter of those eligible. That one in four chance of getting help with utility bills added up to an estimated 8.8 million low-income households served by LIHEAP last year.
Cuts that are less drastic but still harmful include reductions in WIC and Head Start funding. WIC serves nearly 9 million low-income people each year, including almost half of all infants in the United States and about a quarter of children ages 1 to 4. Head Start works with slightly older children to help them acquire the learning skills they need to do well in school. Both good nutrition for infants and toddlers, and ensuring that children are not behind in school almost before they start, are essential to our country’s future.
For details of cuts to poverty-focused development assistance included in H.R. 1, see “Hungry People Overseas Hit Hardest by Proposed Cuts” on page 5.
Short-Term Extensions Have Already Affected Programs
For the first six months of FY2011 (from October 1, 2010, to March 31, 2011), the U.S. government operated under a series of “continuing resolutions” that extended spending authority for a specified time. Congress has passed six such extensions for FY2011, lasting anywhere from 10 weeks to three days, because legislators continued to disagree on a final spending plan for the fiscal year.
The two most recent continuing resolutions passed by the 112th Congress contain significant cuts rather than follow the typical model for short-term extensions, which is to adopt the previous year’s funding levels. The cuts average $2 billion per week—meaning that if Congress continued to pass short-term extensions with similar cuts rather than an annual spending bill, national spending would reflect the draconian spending cuts contained in H.R. 1. So far, however, the cuts in the short-term bills have mirrored cuts that appear in the president’s budget request for FY2012.
A New York Times article of March 14 described the effect of the congressional stalemate on spending as “chaos at many agencies.” For example, some Head Start programs received only 60 percent of their 2010 funding levels for 2011. Many parents, unsure whether Head Start will continue to serve all the preschoolers it does now, are beginning the search for affordable child care.