Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives want to make big cuts to the federal budget as a condition of raising the national debt ceiling. Where do they want to start? Food stamps, of course. And that could have a big impact on Kansas and Missouri.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is reportedly eyeing stringent new work requirements for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, the formal name for what many folks still refer to as food stamps. We don’t know the precise details of what he and the House GOP plan to propose — after months of dithering, Republicans still haven’t offered the public a precise list of cuts they want to make.
But we do know that any effort to tighten up access to the food program will inevitably make life harder for poor and hungry people in Kansas and Missouri. In 2022, nearly 200,000 Kansas residents — roughly 7% of the population — were served by the program. In Missouri, SNAP served more than 650,000 residents, or about 11% of the population. And in both states, two-thirds of those recipients were in families with children.
The good news, as Politico reports, is that Senate Republicans are pushing back against food stamp cuts, recognizing the proposal will be a non-starter with Democrats who control the upper chamber.
More discomfiting, though, is one prominent argument for preserving SNAP in its current form: a reminder from agricultural interests that food stamps aren’t just a “city thing.”
Eric Ooms, vice president of the New York branch of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told lawmakers at a recent listening session for the next farm bill that rural America — a designation that includes broad swaths of Kansas and Missouri — is also a big user of food stamps.
“When it comes to rural America, we talk about SNAP and everybody thinks that’s a city thing and it is, but it also is a rural America (thing),” Ooms told lawmakers. “Food insecurity in rural America is higher than it’s ever been.”
On one hand: He’s right. Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization, reports that food insecurity is actually higher in America’s rural areas than in cities. “Rural communities make up 63% of all U.S counties,” the organization says in an explainer, “but 87% of counties with the highest food insecurity rates.”
Food stamps also have remarkable power to lift rural communities: A 2021 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that SNAP benefits increased economic output by 1.25% in rural areas, compared to 0.53% in urban areas.
Still, we’re uncomfortable with the contrast between city and rural SNAP users — as though the program wouldn’t be quite as worthy of congressional support if only residents of places like Kansas City, St. Louis, Topeka and Wichita were going hungry without food assistance.
Republicans these days like to pick on America’s cities, places of racial and sexual diversity where the party often can’t seem to attract many votes. And the United States has a long history of undermining the broader social safety net rather than extending its protections to minorities. It is easy to hear echoes of that sordid past in references to food stamps as a “city thing.”
Obtaining SNAP benefits is already a challenge. Nationwide, a pandemic-era boost to the program came to an end in March — cutting the grocery budgets of 16 million households. Closer to home, Kansas lawmakers recently passed legislation imposing work requirements on able-bodied food stamp recipients over the age of 50. Making an onerous process even more difficult would be yet another attempt to balance the federal budget on the backs of the poor.
We hope House Republicans don’t make that choice.
Hunger is hunger, after all, whether in the city or in the country. And hungry people — no matter where they live — don’t need Congress to make it harder to feed themselves.