Bonamici: Renewal of federal food aid is inadequate
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici pledged to continue opposition to legislation renewing federal support for crop prices and food aid unless the bill is changed to make it less onerous to people in need.
"There is no reason in America for anybody to be hungry," said Bonamici, a Democrat from Beaverton who represents the 1st District of northwest Oregon. "It's not that we don't have the resources. It's a matter of priorities and making it happen."
She made the comments Friday, June 1, to Oregon Food Bank advocates and allies at the food bank's west branch in Beaverton.
Minority Democrats in the U.S. House scored a rare victory May 18, when 30 Republicans joined them to reject a new five-year authorization (HR 2) that House Republican leaders promoted for federal agriculture programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It's still known as food stamps, even though benefits have been delivered electronically for 20 years.
Bonamici said she objected to a $23 billion cut that the bill proposed in food aid over the next decade and additional work requirements that, according to Food Bank estimates, could eliminate as many as 65,000 Oregon recipients from SNAP benefits.
Though some states are embracing the added requirements, critics say states lack the capacity to move that many recipients into jobs — and Bonamici said many food-aid recipients already work, or are children, or are retired or have disabilities and cannot work.
"Many of those people are working and getting benefits," she said. "But they do not make enough to make ends meet."
One in seven
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, 14.6 percent of Oregonians — about 1 in 7 — still face food insecurity. Unlike two decades ago, when USDA started measuring "food insecurity," Oregon no longer tops the list of states.
According to preliminary figures from the Oregon Department of Human Services, 485,588 people in Oregon — 41,119 in Washington County — drew federal food aid in April. The numbers are down 8 percent statewide and 8.9 percent in the county from one year ago.
In Beaverton, it was 7,002; Hillsboro, 5,946, and Tigard, 4,366.
"We still have too much food insecurity in Oregon," Bonamici said, and that problem is compounded by the high cost of housing and child care.
"It's really hard for someone to be lifted out of poverty when that person is hungry. It's hard to get a job when you don't have a roof over your head."
Jeff Kleen, public policy advocate for the Oregon Food Bank, said: "It throws up one more obstacle on the way to work."
The nonprofit agency distributes food through a network of 21 regional food banks, four of which it operates directly. It helps an estimated 260,000 people. But food boxes, which supply families for a few days, are a last resort after households exhaust their monthly federal SNAP benefits, which average about $125.
Kleen said for every meal supplied by the Oregon Food Bank, federal aid provides 12.
"It takes more than just the churches," said Al Schmitt, director of community outreach for Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Beaverton.
He said federal food aid remains an integral part of how government and nonprofit agencies help people in need: "It's part of a survival kit. When you pick out one piece, we are all in trouble."
Unlike House Democrats, who were united in their opposition, the 30 dissenting Republicans who joined them to reject HR 2 split into two camps — and neither based their objections on the farm bill itself.
A group of moderates seeks a separate House vote on an immigration bill to legalize the status of "dreamers," those who were brought to the United States illegally as children.
The ultraconservative Freedom Caucus seeks a separate House vote on a hard-line immigration bill along the lines favored by President Donald Trump, including money for his proposed border wall with Mexico.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, hoping to keep Republicans together, has now promised votes on two immigration bills. But he hasn't said yet how the House will proceed on the farm bill.
"Until changes are made to this bill, it's likely to remain very partisan," Bonamici said.
Asked by Daniel Isaak, a Food Bank board member and retired senior rabbi at Neveh Shalom Congregation in Portland, Bonamici hesitated to speculate on what's next. House Republican leaders had been working on their party colleagues — notably the Freedom Caucus — to promise votes on an immigration bill in return for support of the farm/food bill.
"My sense is if that happens, and the (farm) bill comes to a vote and passes, it will not pass the Senate," she said.
Congress has only a couple of months left, excluding the weeklong Fourth of July recess and a four-week August recess, before the general-election campaign starts up after Labor Day.
Bonamici said if there is no farm/food aid bill this year, Congress is likely to approve a short-term extension of spending authority known as a continuing resolution. Congress passed six of them, the last one on March 23, to keep the government running through the federal budget year.
"We've gotten good at passing them," she said.