By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
In Somerville, and in Massachusetts, we believe in investing in our residents and our local economy. To see the stark contrast between this approach and the slash-and-burn approach elsewhere you need only compare the proposed cuts to the federal nutrition assistance program to a bill on Beacon Hill that would raise the minimum wage. The former stunts a still fragile economic recovery and hurts families and children, while the latter puts money back into the economy by putting in the pockets of those who need a little more.
Many of you likely know the statistic that 63 percent of Somerville students qualify for and receive free or reduced lunch, and some of your families have directly benefited from this program that aims to eliminate child hunger. But what you may not know is that if passed, a bill currently winding its way through congress would deny 200,000 children nationwide this critical nutritional support and would also end SNAP (Food Stamps) benefits for 2 million low-income U.S. residents. Somerville would not be spared.
This kind of shortsighted cutting will hurt both the nation and Somerville in the long run. Children from working class families are most at risk for obesity and hunger, and Somerville has led the fight against both through our Shape Up Somerville program that offers healthy options at school and through our free summer breakfast and lunch program at multiple sites through the city. But if the proposed SNAP cuts pass, they would undermine our progress especially in eliminating the hunger that can impede our children’s ability to reach their greatest potential and become successful members of the workforce, all at a time when Somerville is making its largest ever investment in our schools.
The U.S. House Agricultural Committee has advanced a Farm Bill that cuts approximately $20 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as “food stamps.” Almost 2 million low-income residents across the nation would lose SNAP eligibility. Some families would be bewilderingly punished for owning a modest car that they use to get to work. They should not have to choose between owning a car and receiving assistance to feed their families.
SNAP benefits are not a financial windfall. The average monthly benefit in fiscal year 2012 came to $133.31 per person – less than $5 a day. Yet this modest spending is critical at keeping those families teetering on the edge from falling into poverty and hunger.
At the same time, SNAP benefits help everyone by stimulating the economy. Moody’s Analytics found that each dollar spent on SNAP generates $1.72 in economic activity. Taxpayer money spent on SNAP directly feeds back into the economy in the form of increased government revenue. Any economic stimulus aims to stimulate the demand that create jobs, and that demand is created when we put money in the hands of people who will spend it.
Some may point to the recent state auditor’s report about SNAP benefits incorrectly going to ineligible recipients, and while there is no level of acceptable fraud and we should demand better standards and management, the amount of money and number of people who received it represent less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the total budget and total recipients. Nationally, meanwhile, SNAP fraud ranges from 3 to 5 percent. It still represents over $2 million dollars in misappropriated funds, taking money off the table for deserving recipients who need this assistance and who put it back into the economy, but we should not punish the many for the abuse of the few.
The same way SNAP benefits stimulate demand and boost the economy, raising the state minimum wage would put more money in the pockets of both working class and middle class families and ease their reliance on SNAP and other government programs. Full-time minimum wage workers in Massachusetts earn $8 per hour, which comes to just over $16,000 a year in one of the most expensive states to live in the nation.
Meanwhile, the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation. The real value of the minimum wage in Massachusetts today is 24 percent below its 1968 level, when it represented $10.58 per hour in today’s dollars, according to Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
Then there’s the growing income gap while the income of the top 1 percent of households has risen 281 percent since 1979, the middle fifth has risen only 25 percent and the bottom fifth has risen 16 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The bill currently before the Massachusetts Senate would phase in an increase in the minimum wage over three years to $11 per hour, and then index it to inflation, ensuring that what people earn actually matches what it costs to live here.
Some point to the fact that many working minimum wage jobs live with people collecting salaries of their own, whether spouses, parents or others. That’s not an argument against raising the minimum wage; instead, it shows how raising it can also directly support middle class families, in addition to indirectly helping the middle class by creating upward wage pressure. A family of four with two adults, one child in school and another child in preschool needs $81,576 to live in Somerville according to a study by the Crittenton Women’s Union. Putting a little more in the paycheck of a household’s secondary earner makes it easier to put food on the table or buy that new pair of badly needed children’s sneakers.
Others argue that raising the minimum wage leads to less employment, but after countless studies, the weight of the evidence points to little or no change in employment levels in response to modest increases in the minimum wage.
SNAP and minimum wage represent investments in the people who live in our community. By investing now instead of cutting back, we’ll see the future dividends in the form of better outcomes for our children and a healthier, robust economy.