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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: We can reduce poverty in the U.S., but will we?

The Columbian
Published: March 9, 2023, 6:03am

The end of enhanced payments from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program generates competing reactions.

On one hand, it is laudable that a “temporary” government assistance program is allowed to expire, rejecting an axiom from famed economist Milton Friedman: “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” One of many examples: Farm subsidies were once enacted “temporarily” to combat low prices and low incomes. The subsidy program now is nearing its centennial.

On the other hand, there are needy Americans who are negatively impacted by a rollback in the SNAP program, colloquially known as food stamps. For millions across the country, including in Washington, enhanced SNAP benefits have been a lifeline through the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additional SNAP payments were enacted early in the pandemic, providing additional benefits that recipients were able to spend on groceries. For residents in 32 states, the enhanced payments were halted March 1, directly impacting more than 30 million Americans; other states had previously rolled back payments.

“This hunger cliff is coming to the vast majority of states, and people will on average lose about $82 of SNAP benefits a month,” Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at an anti-hunger advocacy group, told CBS News in late February. “That is a stunning number.”

For some families, the decline in benefits amounts to $200 a month. Meanwhile, grocery prices are about 10 percent higher than they were a year ago (an increase fueled, in part, by enhanced SNAP benefits).

A recent study by the University of Washington and Washington State University demonstrates the local impact. A survey of mostly low-income homes found that nearly half of respondents worry about having enough food, and nearly one-third of homes with children have concerns about food insecurity. The numbers are higher for minority households.

“In a nutshell, food insecurity we know increased during the pandemic, and as of now, it remains high,” UW researcher Marie Spiker told The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review.

In Clark County, food banks have reported a spike in demand through the COVID pandemic, and the decline in SNAP payments is expected to increase the need. Rising food prices have combined with increases for rent, fuel and other necessities to leave many people in a tenuous position.

While those people reflect the practical implications of changes to food assistance programs, there also are philosophical questions: For a nation that considers itself the world’s wealthiest, is it morally acceptable to have millions of Americans wondering whether they can put food on the table? And for families with children, what are the lifelong impacts of food insecurity during childhood?

The pandemic demonstrated the United States’ great capacity for combating poverty. Thanks to enhanced assistance programs and enhanced income tax credits, the nation’s poverty rate fell to record lows during 2020 and 2021, despite economic upheaval.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities writes: “Child poverty in 2019 stood at 13.1 percent and then fell to 9.6 percent in 2020 — a historic decline — and then to 5.2 percent in 2021.” In 2021, 5.8 million fewer families with children were living below the poverty line compared with 2019.

That should help inform future discussions about the SNAP program. The United States has a way to reduce poverty in our nation. Whether it has the will remains in question.