BY CYNTHIA BROTHERS
On Nov. 18, the House of Representatives approved $265 billion in budget cuts to reduce aid to low-income families, immigrants, seniors, and the disabled. Included in the proposed cutbacks are $844 million from the Food Stamp Program. Approximately 255,000 individuals would lose food stamps (the Basic Food Program in Washington State), including an estimated 70,000 legal immigrants. One-third of reductions would be made through limiting immigrants’ eligibility by raising the U.S. residency requirement to seven years (increased from five). New regulations would also exclude those who qualify for other anti-poverty and childcare programs, such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). As of mid-December, Congress is negotiating on a final bill, and is likely to vote shortly.
The Food Stamp Program provides a basic safety net to millions, reducing hunger among low-income families, as well as supplying crucial temporary assistance for those in short-term economic need. With over 79 percent of benefits going to households with children, the impact on pregnant mothers and the young is especially significant, reducing low birth rates and improving overall health. Food stamp cuts would come at a time of rising hunger nationwide. Washington has the 12th highest hunger rate, with 520,000 receiving food assistance each month. Not only do food stamps offer protection from malnutrition, local grocers also benefit from every dollar invested through the program.
Basic Food benefits are a vital support for many low-income and immigrant API women and their families. Due to various global and local factors such as war and economic devastation, 11.5 percent (2000 Census) of API households in Seattle are headed by single mothers. Single parents, the poorest group of American society, have limited earnings opportunities and face challenges in finding affordable childcare. Food stamps allow more freedom to choose culturally appropriate meals that are difficult to find through other sources, such as food banks. Additionally, existing resources are freed up for spending on other needs such as clothing, housing, and transportation.
Recent immigrants often have little resources or extended family to provide support, and are more likely to struggle with economic instability. Gary Tang of Asian Counseling and Referral Services Food Bank believes the restrictions would “absolutely” disqualify many immigrant APIs. “Those who have been here seven plus years are more likely to have mastery of English and more resources to rely upon. New immigrants will suffer the most.” ACRS Food Bank mainly serves API seniors who are receiving food stamps, and over 50 percent are women. Many immigrants and elders are not “employable” due to age, real or perceived limited English proficiency, or work experience that is not recognized in the United States. Tang feels “these laws are targeted towards a stereotype of immigrants who don’t want to work and are somehow taking all of the benefits. This view doesn’t take into account barriers to working, such as transportation and racial discrimination. Many seniors are not eligible for SSI, so if their food stamps are taken away, they lose their last safety net. It is very sad.”
Funding cuts to food benefits would also shift costs to states and local charities. ACRS has occasional shortages, due to already increasing demand. The Operational Emergency Center food bank in South Seattle served 60,000 families in 2004, of which approximately 17 percent are API women. Miguel Saldin, OEC Operations Coordinator, says “without food stamps, more families must frequently go to food banks, and we will be enormously challenged to obtain enough culturally appropriate food.”
Because 60 percent of the API community is foreign born, further eligibility limitations would be severely detrimental, especially to low-income and immigrant women and their families. API women are caretakers of children and the elderly, often cooking for the entire family. Immigrants are disproportionately represented in low-wage service industry jobs, which are the hardest hit during economic recessions. Having Basic Food support can mean the difference between working multiple jobs to scrape by and being able to spend time at home to care for family. Suely Ngouy remembers, “My mother had to take care of four children while my father worked in garment factories. State assistance and food stamps allowed her to stay at home to monitor us and make sure we stayed out of trouble and gangs.” Reductions to food assistance will not only negatively impact API women, but the well-being of the whole community.
The stereotype of immigrants who are unwilling to work and undeservedly take public benefits is simply not true. Immigrants are just as likely to work and pay taxes, and in accordance should receive assistance when needed. The National Academy of Sciences reports that the U.S. government collects a $50 billion surplus from taxes paid by immigrants. While the House also justifies cuts by citing abuse of the system, there is only a 1 percent error rate in assigning benefits. In addition, reductions in food stamps and other assistance such as Medicaid, school lunches, and childcare would occur during simultaneous tax breaks for the wealthy. Removing food stamp access from those most vulnerable to hunger is not a solution to the federal deficit. It is inexcusable to balance the budget on the backs of communities in need.
What you can do: Visit and/or call your Member of Congress and urge them to “VOTE NO” on any FY 2006 Budget Reconciliation Bill reducing the Food Stamp Program. Find your Congress Member: www.house.gov, and www.senate.gov or Capitol Switchboard: (202) 224-3121.
The Seattle Chapter of NAPAWF is dedicated to forging a grassroots progressive movement for social and economic justice and the political empowerment of Asian and Pacific Islander women and girls. NAPAWF unites our diverse communities through organizing, education, and advocacy. Please check our Seattle Chapter website at www.napawf.org for more information. If you would like to get involved in NAPAWF, send us an email, [email protected] or sign up for our list serve [email protected] to receive up to date information about meetings, events, and postings. Our mailing address is NAPAWF Seattle Chapter P.O. Box 14115, Seattle, WA 98104..