By Marian Wright Edelman
Kaylyn Sigman is a high school senior with big plans. A star soccer player from a poor rural Appalachian Ohio community who loves calculus and creative writing, she’s college bound this fall and dreams of becoming a middle school special education teacher.
Kaylyn’s overcome a lot to arrive where she is today. Her parents’ relationship was rocky throughout her childhood and they finally divorced when she was 10, leaving Kaylyn’s mother alone to raise her, her younger sister, and two younger brothers who were adopted. Her mother, who suffers from seizures, worked as a labor and delivery nurse but is now on disability. Both brothers have special mental health needs and Kaylyn, a bright student who skipped second grade and was reading at the ninth grade level in third grade, has ADHD, all leading to an ongoing pile of medical appointments and bills.
After her father left, Kaylyn’s family struggled in poverty, moving seven times in four years trying to find an affordable place to stay. Kaylyn’s mother says when they lost their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) benefits last year, their family never would have survived the toughest times without PB and J Day, held once a week during the summer months at the children’s school through the local county Children’s Services Agency. They’d come home with enough bread, peanut butter and jelly so each family member could have one sandwich for three meals a day until the next pickup.
Kaylyn is one of five inspiring high school seniors the Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio is honoring this month with a Beat the Odds® award and college scholarship. But millions of other children continue to go hungry every day in our wealthy nation. Some aren’t even lucky enough to be able to count on peanut butter sandwiches to get them through. What do those hungry families do?
SNAP helps feed 21 million children—more than one in 4 children in our nation. SNAP prevents children and families from going hungry, improves overall health, and reduces poverty among families that benefit from it. The extra resources it provides lifted 2.1 million children out of poverty in 2013. It’s the second most effective program for rescuing families from poverty and the most effective program for rescuing families from deep poverty. SNAP doesn’t just keep a child from going to school or bed hungry, but has long-lasting effects. Research shows children with access to food stamps are less likely to experience stunted growth, heart disease, and obesity by age 19, and are nearly 20 percent more likely to complete high school.
And SNAP’s positive effects extend beyond individual children and families to entire communities. During a recession, the impact of SNAP’s economic growth is estimated to be from $1.73 to $1.79 for every dollar of benefits provided. In short, SNAP works. It’s critical that SNAP be improved and expanded, not cut as proposed under the House and Senate Republican proposed budgets.
Although we know cuts to SNAP would mean millions of children might lose benefits and be more likely to go hungry and suffer the long-term negative impacts of hunger, and despite the fact that every major bipartisan budget commission has said that SNAP should not be cut, that’s just what current Republican budget blueprints in the House and Senate are proposing.
Worse, the House budget plan would block grant SNAP and cut its funding by $125 billion—more than a third—from 2021-2025. The Senate budget doesn’t provide enough detail to tell exactly how SNAP would fare, but it cuts non-health entitlement programs serving low- and moderate-income people—which includes SNAP—24 percent.
SNAP benefits now average less than $1.40 a person a meal, and as critical as they are, they’re not enough for many low-income families like Kaylyn’s. In 2013, 54 percent of families receiving SNAP were still food insecure, and overall 1 in 9 children in our nation didn’t have enough to eat. During the recession Congress recognized that SNAP benefits were too low for many and increased the value of the maximum benefit 13.6 percent. The impact was powerful: 831,000 children were kept out of poverty in 2010 as a result of the change. But Congress ended that increase in November 2013. Further slashing SNAP benefits now will cause even more children to go hungry, push families deeper into poverty, and have negative repercussions for the entire nation.
Families like Kaylyn’s need more help, not less—and it’s not too late for our leaders on all sides of the political aisle to do the right thing. In a nation where millions of working families still can’t earn enough to pay rent, pay the bills, and put food on the table at the same time—and where in fiscal year 2013 there were 4.9 million households with no income but SNAP including 1.3 million households with children—relying on the charity of PB and J Day is not a substitute for justice.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.