By Bill Boyarsky
Among the many victims of the Republicans’ deranged effort to kill Obamacare are the millions of forgotten poor suffering from bad nutrition or just plain hunger, one of the most shameful afflictions of American life.
They have escaped media attention. But they will be badly hurt if the effort of right-wing Republican House members—backed by their ultraconservative financial supporters—manages to destroy the Affordable Care Act and then bring down what’s left of the social and economic safety net that has for generations provided minimal protection to the poor, the elderly, children and the disabled.
The Republicans are already insisting on major cuts to the nation’s biggest and most successful nutrition program, food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
On Saturday, New York Times reporters Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Mike McIntire turned a spotlight on the Republican cabal. Their story told how this coalition, led by former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, had plotted for months for a government shutdown to force President Obama to abandon the Affordable Care Act.
As independent Sen. Bernie Sanders commented on his website on Monday, “The shutdown strategy was planned and paid for by the Koch brothers and other wealthy individuals who want to defund the Affordable Care Act, cut Social Security benefits, end Medicare as we know it, abolish the minimum wage and cut other programs that help working families. Their attitude is to use every ounce of leverage, even if it means catastrophic pain for America and the world, so long as we get our way.”
The pain will hit the poor especially hard, depriving them of both nutritional aid and medical care, a double blow affecting their health and their ability to find work, thus dooming them and their children to continued poverty.
When the recession began in 2007, the poverty rate was 12.5 percent. Last year, it was 15 percent. In 2012, 46.5 million were living in poverty, up from 37.3 million in 2007, the federal government reported. A total of 16.1 million of them were children. Almost 4 million of them were 65 or older.
The government’s definition of poverty is $11,490 in yearly earnings for single people. For families, it ranges up to $39,630 a year for a family of eight.
As I visited food kitchens, community health centers and other service providers beginning with the first days of the recession, I could see the toll. Onetime donors and volunteers became recipients, lined up for health care or food packages. Those barely holding on before the recession tumbled into homelessness, some barely surviving on the dangerous streets of Skid Row, in cars or in encampments under freeways.
What is saving millions of them from starvation is the federal nutrition program aimed at the poor and those just above the poverty level whether they are unemployed or working low-pay jobs. More than 47 million receive this aid, usually in the form of something like debit cards, which they present at market check stands. Of the recipients, 22 million are children.
Interestingly, food stamps have been part of the farm bill, which finances, among other things, big subsidies to the agriculture business, the poor riding on the backs of rich farmers. But Republicans considered food stamps a giveaway and refused to renew a $20 billion supplement to the program added during the recession. Then, this fall, House Republicans imposed another $20 billion reduction. This would cut up to 4 million people from the program.
“Something is seriously awry when the richest nation on earth has higher levels of poverty and inequality than most other Western nations, when its tax code and spending programs are awash in unproductive or special interest subsidies; and when, in spite of all that, policymakers would seriously consider a proposal that would increase hunger and deprivation among our least fortunate fellow citizens on a scale that we have not seen in years,” Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in a statement released in August.
The attack on the nutrition program goes hand in hand with the Republicans’ attempt to repeal Obamacare. Nutrition is intimately bound up with health. I saw that in health clinics in poverty-stricken areas where patients, eating poorly, suffered from diabetes, heart disease, dental problems and many other ailments associated with bad nutrition.
One out of five children in America doesn’t know when he or she will be able to eat next, according to Feeding America, a national organization of food banks. Three out of five teachers, another survey reports, say they have children in their classrooms who regularly come to school hungry, crippling their ability to learn, grow and fight illness. Children not yet born are hurt by their expectant mothers’ hunger. If Obamacare is destroyed, their chances for decent medical care will be gone. Many will be waiting in line at the emergency ward.
This is the nightmare of an America envisioned by the House Republicans and their rich contributors who call the shots.
The Donald family, which survives with help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, faces tough times ahead as Republicans in Congress shutter the government and try to cut the budget.