Hunger: Will Congress let Americans go hungry?

Records numbers of Americans are hungry! And, the situation could have been worse! Why wasn’t it?

SNAP is the answer. This is the perky name given to what we call food stamps. SNAP means Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP put food on the table for many American families, and this is the main reason why 2009 wasn’t worse than it was. Over 39 million Americans received SNAP benefits in 2009, up from about 32 million in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The first food stamp program was established in May 1939. Over the next four years, 20 million Americans received food stamps, according to the history provided by the USDA. Since then, the food stamp program has had its up and downs, sometimes growing and sometimes shrinking. As the current economic crisis hit millions of Americans, the SNAP program expanded along with federal stimulus efforts. There were far more mouths to feed—and SNAP grew.

But, now? This autumn, politicians and hunger activists are battling over unfinished business in the U.S. Congress. The array of federal feeding programs is complex—and the political wrangling over those programs is equally complex. Basically, at this moment, Congress may wind up cutting back SNAP funds. Or, the current Congress may simply drag its feet by not finalizing the legislation in the lame duck session. In other words, Congress may risk letting some Americans go hungry by taking no action. Congress may postpone a decision on SNAP’s future—until the new year.

On one side, activists for the poor—including a wide range of faith-based charitable groups—are sending appeals to their members, asking people to contact Congress on behalf of SNAP. One Bread for the World alert this autumn said, in part: “Members of Congress have a lot on their plates right now. But they listen when we speak with one loud and clear voice. … We need to send a strong message that Congress should not be making it even harder for struggling families to purchase food.”

On the other side, the Tea Party’s rising power and a new Republican majority in the House will likely push for deep cuts in the new year. SNAP appears to be a prime target. In a speech on Monday to the Republican Governors Association, Newt Gingrich fired a shot in this direction, declaring that he hopes that the American “left” will be “replaced” in the rising Republican tide. Spelling out his own goals, Gingrich went on to say: “The challenge for us is to have a Republican Party of jobs and paychecks replace a Democratic Party of bureaucracy and food stamps.”

In this midst of this political turbulence, millions of hungry Americans may be told to … welll, not to go “eat cake”—but maybe to go drink tea.

What do you think Congress should do with SNAP? Renew SNAP’s higher funding levels while the financial crisis continues? Cut SNAP to tighten the federal budget?

Should Congress act now? Or wait until the new year?

Please, “Comment” below.

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