Congress seems on a path to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

With minimal media coverage and little fanfare, both houses of Congress last week passed proposed budgets that call for severe reductions in funding for services including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, now in place to cover nutrition and health care for struggling low-income families and children.

Also facing an uncertain future is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which authorizes federal child nutrition programs. If it is not renewed, almost all of the initiatives the law contains, including children’s supplemental school meal programs and food for preschool-age children and their mothers, will expire on Sept. 30.

These budget proposals pose a fundamental question for us and our lawmakers: Can we really consider ourselves a great nation when we allow 49 million of our citizens, including 16 million (1 in 5) of our children, to go hungry?

And the numbers present an even bleaker scenario in Maine, where more than 200,000 residents — including 64,200 children — go without proper nutrition. That’s 24 percent (nearly 1 in 4) of all youngsters in our state.

The United States currently ranks 34th among the 35 industrialized nations in the percentage of our population living in poverty. Since the late 1990s, the rich have been getting richer, the middle class has been shrinking and the numbers of the poor have grown.

Poverty and hunger go hand in hand. Faith-based and nonprofit organizations ministering to the hungry are well-intentioned and admirable in their dedication, but can serve only so many and are straining to provide stopgaps for an increasing number of those in need. The government must do its part with our tax dollars — especially for children.

Ending Child Poverty Now,” a report recently published by the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund, lays out specific steps that could be taken to provide the budgetary funding to end child hunger in the United States. It also makes a compelling case that failing to do so will be more expensive in the long run. Doesn’t it make sense to end hunger rather than try to deal with its consequences?

Bread for the World, a national nonprofit dedicated to urging our nation’s leaders to support legislation to eliminate poverty, reports that one-third of women-led households in the United States faces hunger, “and yet Congress is threatening to dismantle the critical nutrition programs that keep millions of women and their children from going hungry.”

It is medically documented that 80 percent of a child’s brain development occurs by age 5. This makes it even more critical for mothers and their young children to receive proper nutrition.

It is also well established that children who go to school hungry have a more difficult time concentrating and keeping up with grade-level achievements than their classmates and are more prone to behavioral problems. Education is one of the most important keys to breaking the generational cycle of poverty.

I find it unacceptable that our lawmakers are considering curtailing or removing funding for essential programs that support our children’s nutrition and health. I urge others who agree to contact their elected leaders and congressional delegates and let them know how they feel.

People who send an email to their representatives will receive a return email for their efforts, but hearing from their constituents has an implace on how lawmakers vote on the issues. This issue in particular — making sure that no child goes hungry — represents such a fundamental and essential need that it should transcend partisan politics, racial and ethnic prejudices and social divides.

Frank Wnek, of Harpswell, is co-chairman of Bread for the World, Maine.


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