The two-room country schoolhouse where I learned to read and write was demolished decades ago and the site is now a vacant, weed-covered lot that speaks not a word of its past. Yet, it’s all very clear in my memory. I can picture the dirty-white, clapboard building – the two privies near the cornfield out back — the swings and the teetertotters on the playground where my classmates and I frolicked during recess — and the hand pump on the well near the porch that was our only source of water.
Our teacher, Mrs. Mershon, took a picture of her 30 students in grades K-3 and put it in a small picture album as a gift for her third-grade graduating class. Many of these students were products of a hardscrabble existence in the rural Midwest. I was among the more fortunate ones.
My friend Larry was a victim of the endemic poverty in this area, a small kid, kind of frail looking, but quite smart. He could have been a teacher or a doctor — but I have been unable to find that he even graduated high school.
One summer day following second grade I was playing at Larry’s home around noon. His mother invited me to have lunch with Larry and her two other children. She served a piece of bread flavored with melted bacon grease, a small amount of home fried potatoes and a like amount of creamed corn. I was not accustomed to such fare and when I left most of it on my plate, the siblings fought over it.
These memories all came rushing back as I was reading an article about the 2018 farm bill that recently passed in the Republican-controlled House. This five-year, $867 billion legislation is one of the most important actions Congress takes and it is usually a bipartisan process. But House conservatives frustrated the negotiations this year by including provisions to revise the eligibility formulas for the 42 million recipients of food stamps and adding work requirements for that benefit.
The nonpartisan research firm, Mathematica, used data from the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service to determine that almost two million low-income Americans — including 469,000 households with young children — would be purged from the program due to the changed qualification criteria. A separate analysis by the Congressional Budget Office found that an additional 1.2 million would lose food stamp benefits due to the work requirements.
Mathematica also found that seniors in 677,000 households would lose benefits, along with one in 10 people with a disability, another 214,000 households. The elderly, the disabled and children comprise two-thirds of food stamp beneficiaries.
As the House was narrowly passing its farm bill, the Agriculture Department announced that 15 million households reported being “food insecure” in 2017. This means they struggled to put adequate food on the table. We don’t know how many children are in these families but no doubt there are millions.
Like most Americans, I can’t stand the thought of a child going most days without adequate nourishment or going to bed hungry. My wife and I have frequently joined our neighbors, conservative and liberal alike, in providing foodstuffs for backpack programs. They provide needy school kids with supplemental provisions for the weekends when school lunches aren’t provided. Hungry children have difficulty concentrating on their studies and paying attention in class. As a result, they fall behind and many don’t grow up to be productive adults.
Now the House and the Senate are negotiating over their two competing farm bills. Both provide billions in subsidies for agricultural states that have been hit hard by President Trump’s tariffs and falling commodity prices — the less onerous Senate bill is expected to prevail. But Trump has called for the final passage of the House version of the legislation, particularly the section on work requirements. His political base abhors government “welfare,” and they are his main priority.
The food stamp program didn’t exist when I was a child but I’m sure many of my elementary school families would have easily qualified for it, along with Medicaid and other government programs. These benefits might have helped my friend Larry realize his full potential. But all I can do is speculate and think – what a waste if he didn’t.
Conservatives constantly rail about the excesses and fraud in government safety net programs and seek arbitrary ways to purge beneficiaries from the rolls. Sure, they may eliminate some adults who shouldn’t qualify for food stamps and Medicaid. But what about the tens of thousands of children who lose critically needed benefits in the process?
I keep asking myself, what motivates Republican politicians like Freedom Caucus radicals Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), to name a few. They eagerly give trillions in tax cuts to the wealthy and throw money at defense contractors that squander tens of billions on expensive weapons systems. Yet, they want to cut funding for food stamps to save a few billion. Are they bought and paid for by greedy plutocrats — or is it just the result of their ultra-conservative mindset?
To me it’s so obvious — children are our future. We should do everything we can to enable them to grow up mentally and physically strong and healthy. We should help them to become winners in our society – instead of losers to right-wing ideology.