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Views from Harkin

Monday, September 26, 2005

A case of poverty amid plenty

Is it possible that in the United States, the world's wealthiest nation, nearly one in every five children lives in poverty? Shockingly, the answer is yes. Indeed, new Census Bureau data reveals that the number of Americans living in poverty increased by 1.1 million in 2004 to a total of 37 million. And with poverty often comes hunger. Here in Iowa, an estimated 110,000 households are "food insecure." They skip meals or substitute cheaper but less nutritious alternatives. And sometimes they simply go to bed hungry.

The good news is that Iowans are a generous and big-hearted people. We give generously to Iowa's food banks and to food pantries in our local communities. But by far the most important and successful anti-hunger effort here in Iowa and across the United States is the federal food assistance provided by Food Stamp Program, operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

This food assistance helps more than 200,000 Iowans to purchase an adequate diet each month. The vast majority of these recipients are children and seniors on fixed incomes. Many low-income Iowans use these benefits to help them through periods of unemployment or family emergency. A study conducted by the USDA found that more than half of all beneficiary households exit the program within nine months. The Food Stamp Program also provides emergency benefits in disaster situations. Across the gulf coast, victims of Hurricane Katrina will be eligible for these emergency benefits.

These federal food assistance benefits, funded entirely by federal dollars, also provide major support to local economies. They contributed an estimated $176 million to the Iowa economy last year, generating more than $324 million in additional economic activity. This means that agricultural producers benefited from an expanded market; grocery stores and other retailers generated new jobs; and small businesses around the state benefited from the wages paid through these new jobs.

I am deeply concerned that, this autumn, the stage is set for Congress to dramatically cut federal food assistance and other agriculture programs. USDA food assistance alone could make up most, or perhaps even all, of these cuts - as much as $3 billion over five years, with devastating consequences for our most needy citizens.

With the number of Americans living in poverty increasing for the fourth consecutive year, we should be strengthening our response to hunger, not slashing it.

* Tom Harkin, a veteran senator from Iowa, is a member of the Congressional Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry