Rising Tides–Food Security and the National Welfare

Advocates for tax cuts often invoke the saying “A rising tide lifts all boats” as support for tax cut policies that favor the rich on the theory that such cuts will support the larger economy.  Tax cuts like the proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as “food stamps,” from which the proposed House Budget plans to cut by $127 billion over ten years.  But apart from the question of whether the underlying premise–that tax cuts favoring high earners helps the economy–this use of the phrase to justify tax cuts ignores the actual reason that a rising tide lifts boats.

Boats, floating on water, rise when the water rises underneath the boat.  The water acts like a floor–below which no boat sails.

Rather than tax cuts, the proverb seems more applicable to those programs that help ensure that people’s most basic needs are met–the floor below which no one should be allowed to sink.  We should apply the proverb to programs that ensure that people have food and shelter, that jobs pay at least a minimum wage, that all children have access to quality educational opportunities.  It is through these programs that the national economy expands and thrives, causing all boats to rise–dinghies as well as yachts.

SNAP, and the other food assistance programs, the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) help an extraordinary number of people struggling to provide food for their family for comparatively little money.  According to the USDA‘s report on Household Food Security in 2010, SNAP provided an average benefit of $134 to an average of 40.3 million people each month. The School Lunch Program provided lunches to an average of 31.6 million school children each day, 56% of which were provided free to children in low income families.  And WIC served an average of 9.2 million participants each month, providing benefits of about $42 per person.

Although these are not large amounts per person, they are effective.  Census data show while that hunger and food insecurity surged in 2008, it did not increase further in 2009 and 2010 even though unemployment and poverty continued to increase. This is because programs such as SNAP and WIC were expanded to meet the increased need.  We also know that SNAP is effective in reducing the nation’s poverty rate.  In 2010, it succeeded in lifting 3.9 million U.S. residents, many of whom are children, above the poverty line.

But it is not only the recipients who benefit from SNAP dollars, local communities benefit as well.   According to the USDA, for every $5 of SNAP funding, $9 of community spending is generated.  Also, because SNAP and other food assistance programs help people get back on their feet, they contribute to ensuring a productive work force for the community and the nation.  Thirty percent of people who receive SNAP work for wages.  Ensuring that workers are sufficiently fed may help ensure that they and their families are healthier, thereby reducing the number of lost work days due to illness.  Additionally, SNAP benefits, which can be used at local farmer’s markets, help the nation’s family farm economy–in 2010, 1611 farmer’s markets and direct marketing farmers participated in SNAP. Each $1 billion of retail generated by SNAP creates $340 million in farm production, $110 million in farm value added, and 3,300 farm jobs and 8,900-17,900 full-time jobs.

Indeed, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP is considered the one of the most effective government response to the recession, not just for people in need, but for our entire economy.  So the next time someone says that a rising tide floats all boats, agree, but point out that the most effective way to raise the tide is to support SNAP, not by cutting it.  Help ensure that we don’t leave our neighbors under water, and thus further impoverish our nation–support SNAP and the other food security programs.  Don’t leave people stranded at low tide.

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