A former Oregon human services chief now serving in the Obama administration is grateful to Catholic leaders for championing domestic food aid.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, has been targeted for reductions in the U.S. House. Republican lawmakers unmoored the program from a budget bill, leaving food assistance in doubt.
"This help is deeply needed by many," says Kevin Concannon, Agriculture Department undersecretary in charge of food, nutrition and consumer services.
Concannon received the 2012 Catholic Charities USA Keep the Dream Alive Award. With wife Eileen, he still comes to St. Clare Church in Portland when he visits Oregon. He led the state's human services department 1987-95. Concannon held similar posts in Maine and Iowa before being confirmed in 2009 as an official in the Department of Agriculture.
Some House members would take a "meat axe" to SNAP without knowing who is being served, he argues. "There seems to be less interest in looking at government programs that subsidize corporations or others who are better off," he says.
Two U.S. Catholic bishops testified in Congress earlier this year to warn against balancing the budget by making life worse for the poor. “We support the goal of reducing future unsustainable deficits, but insist that this worthy goal be pursued in ways that protect poor and vulnerable people at home and abroad,” said Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace.
“The moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated," the bishops said in a March 18 letter to Congress.
Also winning Concannon's gratitude is Sister Simone Campbell, the Sister of Social Service who organized the "Nuns on a Bus" tours to speak out against deep cuts to social spending. Sister Simone, an attorney, testified before Congress in July.
"Programs like SNAP "do a tremendous amount of good," Sister Simone said in testimony that quoted Pope Francis and Pope Benedict. "They reduce poverty and help families make ends meet."
SNAP goes out to about 47 million Americans, the most ever. Of those, about 45 percent are children, 8 to 10 percent are people with permanent disabilities and 9 or 10 percent are senior citizens.
Those who want to reduce the program say it has grown out of control during the Obama years. About 31 million were enrolled at the end of 2008. In 2001, there were about 19 million SNAP recipients.
Concannon counters that the recession has increased need, along with structural changes in the nation that cause the poor to keep getting poorer. Federal and state studies show that those now receiving SNAP are poorer than those in the previous few decades.
"The recession is over for those who have education or desired technical skills," Concannon says. "For others, those with a high school education or less, the recession continues."
Concannon says the number of SNAP recipients should hardly be a surprise —there are now 49 million Americans below the poverty line and SNAP was designed to respond to need.
The White House has said it will not support cuts and House Democrats called for food aid to be replaced in any future farm bill.