Opinion

Remember our Uncle Buddys in food stamp debate

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It’s impossible for me to think about food stamps and not think about my Uncle Buddy – my mom’s brother.

He was a gun-owning, motorcycle-riding, construction-working, leave-me-the-hell alone Republican. He worked on my grandmother’s farm high up in the Appalachian mountains of southwest Virginia – raising green peppers, tobacco, beef cattle and horses – and during the season he worked in construction, when there was work to be had.

He drove big earth-moving machines, graders and dozers, that over time shook his health and his strength away. He kept a .44-magnum revolver with a barrel that seemed as long as my forearm in a cowboy style holster hanging on his bedpost. And as a kid, I loved bombing through the woods with him in an old Willys jeep.

At the end of his life, he was fighting cancer and living in my grandmother’s old house on the farm, which was literally falling down around him. He couldn’t work, he was sick, and he needed food stamps and he hated it.

He’d worked hard his whole life, but at the end pride was no match for need.

Having traveled from one end of this state to the other, meeting people with their own stories — and their own Uncle Buddys — the truth is too simple to ignore: Too many people, people who have played by the rules and who have worked hard, are struggling to put food on the table.

Children, people with disabilities, older Mainers, moms and people who are down on their luck are at risk, and the farm bill, which has passed out of the House Agriculture Committee, will make things much, much worse.

The bill, HR 2, could be voted on as soon as next week in the U.S. House of Representatives, if the votes can be wrangled by Speaker Paul Ryan and his arm-twisters. Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin supports the farm bill, while Rep. Chellie Pingree opposes it.

Given the Republican majority, stopping the bill there would require a Herculean effort, maybe a miracle. Here’s hoping for a miracle.

In the Senate, it’s a different story. A slim, one-seat majority for Republicans includes moderates, such as Sen. Susan Collins, who remains the pivotal vote on almost every policy moving in Washington. So far, the Senate hasn’t developed its own version of the bill.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the farm bill would cut more than $17 billion out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over 10 years. It would either take away or reduce food assistance to about 2 million people.

Dressed up as work requirements, the draconian measures in the farm bill would hurt veterans, older Mainers, people with disabilities, working moms and even children.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the proposal would create new bureaucracy and paperwork challenges, pass new administrative challenges onto states, unnecessarily take food assistance away from families caring for a disabled relative and generally hurt people already facing significant challenges.

Hunger in Maine is real, it’s significant, and policies enacted by Gov. Paul LePage — which are being touted by the Trump administration and farm bill supporters — have made things worse.
Business at food pantries is booming as more people turn to them for assistance and the problem of hunger persists.

According to Good Shepherd Food Bank, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, 16.4 percent of Mainers are food insecure. That’s a fancy way of saying they don’t have enough food and don’t know where they’re going to get it.

One in five Maine kids is food insecure. And 16 percent of Maine seniors are at risk of going hungry. Overall, Maine ranks seventh in the country for food insecurity. And Maine ranks third in the nation for the number of households experiences “very low food security,” which means people are going hungry.

With everything happening in the news — from Russian oligarchs paying the president’s lawyer, to the Iran nuclear deal, to election tampering and the Mueller investigation — it’s hard to keep up with the more mundane and boring activities of government, like passing a farm bill.

But for 2 million Americans and tens of thousands of Mainers, what happens with the farm bill could determine if they have enough food on the table for their families.

By all means, keep checking those news alerts. But save a little room for the day-to-day, slow motion disaster that is breaking the social fabric of our country. And remember the Uncle Buddys in your life who might need a little help.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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