In the super-charged public debate on health care, many advocates are rightly calling attention to the importance of protecting the health needs of people with disabilities. But for many in Southwest Washington who are living with a disability — and for their families — having health insurance coverage is just one part of the struggle.
Severe and chronic disabilities are often associated with a significant decline in earnings. For families with children who have disabilities, for example, parents are often forced to step back from work to care for their child — making it even more difficult to shoulder high health-related costs.
As a result, they have a hard time making enough money to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. And research shows that people with disabilities in the U.S and in Washington state are more likely to live in poverty. Many of these people are just one accident or medical challenge away from financial catastrophe.
That’s where the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) comes in. SNAP helps nearly 26,000 children, working families, seniors, and people with disabilities buy food in Clark County. Of those, 11,700 are people with disabilities. By helping them put healthy food on the table, SNAP keeps many from falling into severe poverty or homelessness, or from facing other hardships. And it helps improve long-term health, education, and employment outcomes.
The program is especially critical for people living in Southwest Washington’s rural communities. In fact, 21 percent of households — nearly 20,000 households in total — in Cowlitz, Klickitat, Lewis, Pacific, Skamania, and Wahkiakum counties participate in SNAP, a much higher percentage of the population than the state average of 14 percent. Further, people on SNAP in southwest Washington’s rural counties are much more likely to have disabilities. Fifty-six percent of SNAP participants in these counties have disabilities, compared to 46 percent statewide.
In short, the program offers a significant number of Southwest Washingtonians with disabilities the chance to thrive. Cuts to SNAP would be devastating to their economic well-being.
But this program doesn’t just help families. SNAP also helps drive local spending, which helps create jobs and strengthen our state’s economy. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, every $5 spent on SNAP benefits results in $9 in economic activity. That’s because with SNAP benefits, people have more to spend at the grocery store — providing a boost to local businesses and farmers.
Despite these proven benefits, Congress is targeting vital support programs like SNAP with drastic cuts. In fact, the budget resolution that House Republicans just released calls for $150 billion in cuts to SNAP (a more than 20 percent reduction) over the next decade.
While the specific details of how Congress would restrict and restructure the funding are still unclear, cuts of this magnitude would nevertheless put our state on the hook for billions of dollars over the next 10 years. They would also crack the foundation of well-being for hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities in Washington — and hurt local businesses in the process.
We all pay the price when family-supporting policies come under attack. And we all share in the responsibility to ensure that when members of our communities hit hard times, they are still able to cover their most basic needs. Washingtonians must call on their elected leaders to protect investments in SNAP — thereby helping to protect the health and financial security of people with disabilities.
Julie Watts is deputy director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, a nonpartisan research organization that works to advance prosperity for all Washingtonians. Darla Helt is the executive director of Parents Empowered and Communities Enhanced, a nonprofit that helps individuals of all abilities access their community.