It's hard to learn when you're hungry. But Congress just voted to send more kids to school with empty stomachs.
House members returned to Washington today for an emergency session to pass a $26 billion education jobs bill. On top of funding Medicaid, it will save at least 161,000 teachers from pink slips and also help stave off the losses of another 158,000 public employees.
The problem is that it does all this by cutting $12 billion dollars from future food stamp funding.
It's the first time in history that America will see their food assistance decline. A family of four will lose $59 a month in food stamp benefits once the gouging goes into effect in 2014.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who chairs the subcommittee responsible for food stamp funding, was among the many Democrats who voted for the bill with a lump in their throats.
"I rise in support of this bill with a heavy heart not because of what it provides but because of what it takes away," DeLauro said in debate before the vote. "I cannot in good conscience condone what we have taken away....The bill shamefully pits these priorities against each other."
DeLauro and fellow Democrats, including Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts, have vowed to restore funding to the food stamp program when they return from their summer recess in September. They'll have to find another place to cut funds from.
The recession has driven food stamp rolls up to a record 40 million Americans. But even before the economic downturn, almost 15 percent of families went without enough food, according to the Department of Agriculture, which tracks the numbers. That means that even in the highly unlikely event that the economy has returned to pre-recession conditions by 2014, food assistance will still be vital.
Even before and during this recession, food stamps are the last lifeline for many families. According to the New York Times, 6 million people were living off of food stamps alone at the start of the year, having lost access to unemployment insurance, cash assistance and unable to find a job.
As I reported for ColorLines earlier this year, many of these families are forced to spread their food assistance impossibly thin. Some poor mothers, who have been pushed off of cash assistance roles by draconian time limits and sanctions, have been forced to trade their food assistance for cash to help pay rent and buy other basic necessities. It's a grey-market practice in which many feel left without any viable alternatives.
For these families, losing $60 a month could mean there's no stop before homelessness.
Joel Berg, who directs the New York Coalition Against Hunger, is outraged by the vote.
"They've accepted that you either cut off the left arm or you cut off the right arm. These are false choices we don't have to accept."
Congressional Republicans, speaking out against the bill this morning, were almost universally laughable in their insincerity.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling berated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for calling the emergency session in the first place. Then, in a move remarkable for its dishonesty, Rep David Dreier stood up and objected to the fact that the spending is, "paid for by...by hitting food stamps."
So Republicans are opposed to offsets and they're upset about cutting public programs? I'm confused.
The deficit has become the GOP's standby tool as they try to block investment in jobs and recovery. First, Republicans screamed over the deficit and Democrats acquiesced to pass this new bill by cutting food stamps. Now, in the House, Repiblicans are objecting to the bill altogether, pretending to be ever so concerned about people on food stamps.
Come fall, in addition to food stamps, Temporary Aid for Needy Families is billed for reauthorization. Unemployment benefits will be up for another extension a few months later. Seems time for some very loud organizing among the poor and the unemployed.
Joel Berg says his organization and countless others are gearing up to do just that.