By the Rev. Dr. Anna Madsen, OMG: Center for Theological Conversation in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 824,082 people called South Dakota home in 2011.

In the last four years, the number of people receiving the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly referred to as Food Stamps — has increased from 63,655 in July of 2008 to 104,279 in July of 2012 (the last month on record). Not only do these numbers indicate that 12.65 percent — more than one in eight! — of my state’s population draw on food stamps for their daily bread, they also show that the need for assistance has increased 63.8 percent over the last four years.

These are shocking statistics.

Earlier this year, during an offering of letters at our church, our family wrote letters to our members of Congress, asking them to please retain funding for this key program. Our 8-year-old daughter put her own crayon to paper too, and sent off her request that our officials protect hungry children by protecting SNAP from budget cuts. While we were pleased that our daughter received a response from our Representative, we were stunned at what that letter told her. “Loopholes and fraud in the current program have lead [sic] to federal spending on SNAP to increase by 270 percent over the past ten years.”

My husband, an economist, and I, a theologian, were dumbfounded, not least of all because of our respective disciplines.

Based on both economic and basic moral grounds, this assertion couldn’t be more wrong.

December 2007 to June 2009 marked the greatest recession since the Great Depression, an economic event that clearly parallels the increase in families supported by SNAP. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities there is almost no fraud in this program. Since 2008, despite obvious increase in SNAP benefits, the overpayment rate of 4 percent was reduced to 3 percent in 2011 (the last year on record); the underpayment rate went from 1 percent to 0.9 percent; the combined error rate in 2011 was only 3.8 percent; and the overpayment rates are counted as errors even when recouped. 

I wonder if our officials are aware that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office points out that one-fifth of the increase in SNAP monies from 2007-2011 comes from the temporary allowance of higher benefits through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and that higher costs of food and lower earned wages during the recession play a key role in the difference?

I also hope our officials realize that a wide range of religious leaders have converged from various traditions in a coalition called the Circle of Protection. They consider support of SNAP among its core commitments. These leaders and faith groups include our own church, the ELCA, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Association of Evangelicals, Sojourners, Bread for the World, the National Council of Churches, the Salvation Army, World Vision and a long list of additional Christian clergy leaders from other traditions across the spectrum. The Jewish community, in a variety of forms, also advocates for SNAP, as does the Muslim community.

The inaccurate statement in the letter our daughter received back from Capitol Hill insults more than one-eighth of South Dakota constituents by suggesting that the primary reason for the increase to SNAP is because of loopholes in the system (loopholes which are then exploited), and fraud from the recipients. 

SNAP is part of the Farm Bill because it is not only a nutritional assistance program; it is also an agricultural assistance program. Feeding hungry people also means feeding farmers, by way of compensating them for their hard work in the fields and on the farms.

We have farmers in South Dakota. We have hungry people in South Dakota. 

I urge our officials in Washington, D.C., to protect SNAP from harmful cuts that would hurt farmers and the poor, not only in South Dakota, but across our nation.