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Public Statements

Progressive Caucus

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. McGOVERN. I want to thank my distinguished colleague from California for organizing this and for her leadership on this and so many other issues aimed at trying to eliminate poverty in this country. I also want to thank all my colleagues who have already spoken on this issue.

I want to come to the floor just to remind people that hunger is a real problem in the United States of America. We have close to 50 million of our fellow citizens who are hungry, and 17 million are kids. We are the richest, most prosperous Nation in the world, and we have close to 50 million people in this country who are hungry. I'm ashamed of that fact. We all should be ashamed of that fact. What is particularly maddening about this issue is that it is solvable. This is a solvable problem.

Hunger is a political condition. We have the food. We have the resources. We have the infrastructure. We have everything but the political will to end it.

Hunger is a problem that costs us dearly. People say to me, Oh, we can't spend any more money; we have a tough budget situation. I remind them that we can't afford not to. The cost of hunger in this country is astronomical.

We pay an incredible amount in terms of avoidable health care costs. People who don't eat on a regular basis, their immune systems are compromised and they end up spending more time in a hospital. Senior citizens who can't afford their prescription drugs and their food take their prescription drugs on an empty stomach and end up in hospitals. There's a cost to that. There is a human cost and there's a financial cost to it. Children who are hungry who go to school don't learn. Workers who are hungry and go to work lack in productivity. We pay for this.

This is solvable. It is solvable.

Now, I have come to this floor every week for the last 13 weeks with this sign, ``End Hunger Now,'' and I have given a speech every week about what we need to do to end hunger, a different perspective on hunger. I have tried to raise awareness on this issue because there is not a single community in the United States of America, not a single congressional district that is hunger free.

One of the tools that we have to combat hunger is the SNAP program. It is not the answer to everything. It is not a perfect program, but it is one of the tools that we utilize to help alleviate hunger in this country. And we are now considering a farm bill next week, which is stunning to me, because rather than being a bill that helps expand opportunities for our farmers and helps alleviate hunger, it will be a farm bill that makes hunger worse.

The House of Representatives is going to consider a bill that came out of the House Agriculture Committee that cuts SNAP by $20.5 billion. Two million people will lose their benefits. Hundreds of thousands of kids who qualify right now for free breakfast and lunch at school because their parents are on SNAP will lose that benefit.

I've had people say to me, Well, you know, those people ought to go out and look for a job. The fact of the matter is that millions and millions and millions of people who are on SNAP right now work. They work full-time, but they earn so little they still qualify for this benefit.

We ought to have a debate in this Congress about ensuring that work pays a livable wage, that when people go to work and they work full-time, they ought not have to live in poverty. But that, unfortunately, is not the reality as we speak. The reality is that there are millions of people who are working and earn so little that they need this benefit to feed their kids and feed their families.

As we emerge from this difficult economic crisis, we need to make sure that this safety net is in place. We need to ensure that people have enough to eat. That shouldn't be a controversial issue.

To my Republican friends, I would say that this used to be a bipartisan issue. The great antihunger programs that our country has emerged as a result of bipartisan cooperation. In the 1970s, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas and Senator George McGovern of South Dakota worked together to help strengthen these programs to the point that in the 1970s we almost eliminated hunger in America. We made progress. We came close.

Then we undid all of this. We turned our backs on those who were struggling, and now we have close to 50 million people who are hungry in this country. That, to me, is a national scandal. And rather than putting forward a farm bill that makes hunger worse, we ought to be talking about a farm bill that helps solve this problem.

I've urged the White House to call a conference or a summit on food and nutrition to bring us all together, all the various agencies that have some role in combatting hunger: the charities, the food banks, the churches, the synagogues, the mosques, the doctors, the teachers, the nutritionists, the people who are involved in this issue one way or another. Let's bring us all together and actually come up with a plan to end this scourge. We can do this.

You're not going to solve a problem without a plan, and we do not have a plan. But as we wait to develop that plan, let's not take away what is there right now to help keep people from being hungry to literally starving.

When you cut a program like this by $20 billion--by the way, a program with one of the lowest error rates of any Federal program that we have. I wish I could find a missile program that the Pentagon is championing that has a lower error rate than the SNAP program. It would be phenomenal, quite frankly. It would save billions of dollars if the Pentagon ran their missile programs as efficiently as this program is run. Yet it has been demonized and it has been diminished. People have demagogued this program. All it does is provide people the ability to buy food; that's all it does. The fact that we would be taking away this safety net at this difficult time is something I don't think we should do.

To my Democratic colleagues who are saying that we ought to support a farm bill even though it has $20 billion of cuts in it, we'll send it to conference and hopefully it will all get better, don't do that. Our priority, if it stands for anything--we have stood by and for those who are poor, those who are struggling, those who are vulnerable--let's not throw that away. Let's not trash our principles. This is not the bill that should be moving forward, not a bill that makes hunger worse.

I want to also call attention to the fact that I joined with Congresswoman Lee and others in taking the food stamp challenge today, and I just will remind you that this SNAP challenge that we took today means that we live on an average SNAP benefit, which is $1.50 a meal and it is $4.50 a day. I mean, how much does a Starbucks coffee cost? This is what people live on.

Critics will say this is meant as a supplement, not to be the entire food budget. Well, I'm going to tell you something: things are tough for a lot of people. This is their entire food budget. In fact, what they do is they utilize this modest benefit, and then they go to food banks and they go to their churches and they go to their charities and look for additional food because this doesn't provide enough.

And so those of us in Congress who are trying to call attention to the fact that this is an important program--and by the way, it's not an overly generous program. We are doing the SNAP challenge. Some say this is a gimmick, it's a stunt. Well, you know what? We're trying to call attention to a real problem in this country. And if you think it's a gimmick or a stunt, you take the challenge. You live on this for a week. You see how difficult it is. It's hard to be poor. It takes a lot of time to try to make ends meet, to try to put a grocery list together that will get you through the week. And we're doing it just for ourselves. Imagine doing it when you have kids. I'm a parent of a 15-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. I couldn't imagine the anguish of wondering whether or not I could put food on the table to make sure they have enough to eat. This is the United States of America. We should be trying to lift people up, not put people down.

Let me just say finally, none of us here believe that this should be a permanent condition. In fact, what we need to do is have a conversation about how to extend these ladders of opportunity for people so they can climb out of poverty, so they won't need this, so they can be on their own, so they can have a job. That's why so many of us have been complaining about the fact that we have a lot of debates here on the floor, a lot of bills, but we don't seem to have many bills that deal with job creation. That's the answer. That's the answer. You want to get people off of SNAP, give them a job that pays a livable wage.

I'll just say in conclusion that I appreciate the opportunity to be able to highlight this issue. I'll tell you, I have spent an awful lot of time as cochair of the House Hunger Caucus meeting with people who are struggling in this country and meeting with families who have kids who are hungry. You meet a child who is hungry, it breaks your heart. You can't get it out of your mind. And that there are hungry children in this country--in this country--is something that should not be.

I would urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, let's come together and reject these cuts in the farm bill. Reject these cuts in SNAP, and let's try to figure out a way to restore those moneys so that people will not go without, and then let's have a farm bill that we can be proud of. If we cannot reverse the $20.5 billion in cuts in SNAP, then there's no way we should support that farm bill. No way. Republicans and Democrats should join together and say no, we're not going to support a farm bill that makes hunger worse.

I appreciate this opportunity, and I look forward to working with the gentlewoman from California and others in trying to find ways to make sure that people in this country have enough to eat, and also make sure that we develop a plan to help people transition off of this assistance so they can be independent and productive like all of the people we know who are struggling want to be.


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