As Congress returns to Washington to grapple with important budget decisions, let’s remember our individual and collective duty to protect the most vulnerable among us and provide for the needy.  When Congress adjourned for its August recess, it left many questions about the future funding levels of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps) which feeds some 47 million people each month. Despite continued need in a tough economy, the House of Representatives issued a proposal to cut food assistance for 4 to 6 million people.

SNAP is one of the programs that meet the needs of the poor in this country around which the U.S. Bishops are seeking a “circle of protection.”  (The Bishops also want to protect programs serving the poor around the world.)

SNAP funding has increased by 70% since the recession in 2008. Despite arguments to the contrary, this increase is a direct result of the recession, when rising unemployment and under-employment led to a dramatic increase in the number of low-income families qualifying for assistance—not because eligibility criteria were expanded.  About 72% of SNAP recipients live in households with children. More than 25% live in households with seniors or individuals with disabilities.

Despite claims of widespread fraud and abuse in SNAP, fraud is at an all-time low of 3.8%. Compare that to a Medicare fraud rate of 8-10%. Many false assumptions are spread about Americans receiving SNAP.  SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control and fraud prevention programs that effectively ferrets out individuals and grocery stores that abuse the system. SNAP cannot be used to purchase such things as drugs, alcohol, or pornography. It also has strict time limits and eligibility requirements.  Among families with children, more than 60% of recipients work while receiving SNAP benefits, and almost 90% work in the year prior to or subsequent to the year in which they receive SNAP benefits.

While our fiscal woes are important, ensuring everyone has access to adequate and nutritious food is a fundamental human right. It is also integral to the Church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person. 

As Pope Francis said at World Youth Day this summer, “I would like to appeal to those in possession of greater resources, and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity! No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world!”

In that spirit, while we debate the proper solutions to our budget problems, let’s remember our obligation to support and be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who have fallen on hard times.