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Sindhu MD'17: Brother, can you spare a dime?

Living in the shadows of Brown, most of us are largely insulated from the trials and travails of Providence’s South Side. But if you hop on a bus and pay close attention to your surroundings, you will notice that several of the city’s neighborhoods, including the West End and Elmwood, suffer from elevated rates of poverty, high levels of crime and widespread food insecurity. As a result, Providence is a natural target for a plethora of anti-poverty programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as the food stamp program. The benefits offered by SNAP are quite modest: In 2013, the average recipient received $4.38 per day. But the program has proved to be highly effective, decreasing an average recipient’s likelihood of experiencing food insecurity by 30 percent.

Unfortunately, American policymakers typically don’t heed facts when crafting legislation. Last week, Congress passed a new Farm Bill, a once-every-five-years affair that codifies the federal government’s agriculture and nutrition policies by allocating spending for programs like crop insurance for farmers and SNAP for needy families. Driven primarily by prodding from Congressional Republicans, who dislike the high costs of the food stamp program and view it as a disincentive to work, this iteration of the bill will cut $8 billion from SNAP over the next decade. Such a blatantly callous act will not only harm millions of Americans — including millions of children — but also reduce the long-term potential of the U.S. economy.

Historically, participation in SNAP has generally been modest, with less than 10 percent of the population typically receiving benefits at any one time. But enrollment in the program has grown substantially during President Obama’s term in office — since 2008, enrollment has surged 50 percent. About 15 percent of Americans and 17 percent of Rhode Islanders now receive SNAP benefits, at an annual cost of $76 billion to the federal government. A large number of children in particular are dependent on the program — nearly half of all beneficiaries are under the age of 18.

What accounts for the recent explosion in SNAP enrollment? Is it the “entitlement culture” ushered in by the reign of Obama, as Congressional Republicans would have you believe? Absolutely not. While it is true that SNAP enrollment has increased recently, this is primarily a reflection of the devastation wrought by the Great Recession, itself caused by reckless bankers unconcerned with the suffering of Main Street. With abnormally high nationwide unemployment and poverty rates and income inequality at its highest level since the Roaring Twenties, it is no surprise that more Americans are now dependent on government assistance, let alone food stamps. Indeed, with the economy as weak as it has been over the past five years, it is a wonder that more Americans are not enrolled in SNAP.

The Farm Bill, though, ignores current macroeconomic conditions. The Heritage Foundation, an influential player in the crafting of GOP policy, alleges that the bill will tighten eligibility to encourage more people to seek employment on the grounds that “food stamps (discourage) work and (reward) dependence.”

But does $4.38 per day — representing just 36 minutes of work at the federal minimum wage — actually act as a disincentive to work? Quite simply, the answer is no: In reality, roughly 60 percent of SNAP recipients eligible to work do so. Moreover, for those recipients unable to find work, with nearly three applicants for every job opening in America today, these cuts will cause many to lose a key funding source for regular meals.

What else will these cuts accomplish? Academics have consistently found SNAP to be one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus available to policymakers. For every $1 that the government invests in the program, the U.S. economy expands by approximately $1.79. Thus, over 10 years, an $8 billion cut to SNAP translates into roughly $14 billion in lost economic output.

What about the the program’s costs? Will cuts to SNAP help reduce future budget deficits, as Heritage would lead you to believe? While direct program costs will be reduced, these cuts will actually cause federal health care costs to soar by exacerbating the food insecurity of millions of Americans. In fact, a recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that a $2 billion cut in SNAP benefits could lead to $15 billion in increased health care costs for diabetes alone over the next decade. Additionally, by exposing millions of children to the effects of chronic nutrient deprivation, the bill will lay fertile ground for the development of widespread chronic disease in America’s next generation.

Poverty destroys potential, kills dreams, causes disease and reinforces perpetual inequality. SNAP, while not a cure, has proven to be one of the most effective anti-poverty programs the federal government has ever devised. Targeting the program for cuts will not, as the GOP and the Heritage Foundation claim, lower unemployment or reduce the deficit; instead, it will simply reinforce inequality, damage the economy and leave millions at risk of food insecurity. Not only is such a strategy profoundly stupid, but it also is ethically reprehensible and violates our moral imperative as Americans to ensure that every citizen, and especially every child, has an equal opportunity to succeed.

It’s a shame that we have given Congressional Republicans the opportunity to once again play destructive politics and jeopardize the livelihoods of millions of Americans, including thousands of our fellow residents in Providence. Make sure it never happens again by helping to vote them out in November.


 Kunal Sindhu MD’17 can be contacted at


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