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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Force-feeding the babies

The Trump administration’s fiscal 2019 budget pitched a “bold, innovative approach” to reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — namely, treat food stamp recipients like babies. Because welfare recipients are presumed to be unable to choose their own food, the Trump administration decided it should pick and pack the food boxes and deliver them to the households’ doorsteps.

Under the proposed program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would buy directly from producers and load the bureaucratically selected products into “America’s Harvest Box.” Clearly, the program creates a one-size-fits-all system in which the government assumed bureaucratic responsibility over personal responsibility and consumer choice. This is how we “Make America Great Again.”

While the program’s goal is to save $129.2 billion over the next 10 years, the proposed reform does not really address the welfare system’s inherent flaws. What was originally conceived as an in-between-jobs safety net has become a lifetime cradle, not proving enough success in moving able-bodied recipients toward work.

Curbing some of the SNAP recipients’ big appetite for steaks and lobsters is an artificial strategy to reduce food stamp expenditures.

Which, incidentally, brings us to welfare expenditures on this part of the world. According to the USDA, the CNMI has $10 million in food stamps left unspent.

In March, CNMI Rep. Gregorio “Kilili” Sablan urged the CNMI to make more families eligible and to raise their monthly benefits after it was revealed earlier that the government had $22.5 million in food stamp grant funds.

The CNMI food stamp fund seemed hardly touched even after the local government raised the eligibility requirement from $1,277 to $1,451. The USDA is “concerned” about the under-utilization of this fund—thus, Sablan is equally concerned that his bid to ask Congress for more food stamp money is in jeopardy.

Sablan said slow spending has made it difficult to get five more years of increased food stamp money for the Marianas into the new farm bill. He said he was told by Republicans: “Your government already has $22.5 million unused, we cannot give you more money.”

Perhaps, we fail to recognize that some bad news are actually good news. If food stamp expenditures remained lower than what was appropriated, even after the eligibility requirements are raised, then it means there are less below the poverty line, less people in need. Therefore, no need to beg for more dole-outs. An increased welfare expenditure is not a badge of honor for any administration.

Reduced welfare expenditures are a sign of improving economy— a mark of triumph that the CNMI government can be proud of. According to U.S. Department of Commerce, the commonwealth experienced strong economic growth in 2016, with gross domestic product spiking by 28.6 percent— from $933 million to $1.24 billion. Which indicates more jobs are available.

But there is a labor gap that the CNMI needs to fill. While there are 13,000 positions reserved for the CW program, the CNMI has 10.5 percent unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of 2017. According to the preliminary result of the survey conducted by the Department of Commerce-Central Statistics Division, the CNMI had an estimated potential labor force population of 37,419, of this number 12,314 people were not in the labor force.

While pushing to bring more welfare money into the CNMI may bring political points with voters, seeking federal funds to train the local workforce is more commonsensical and more dignified than making the CNMI people wait for “America’s Harvest Box” delivered at their doorstep.

Mar-Vic Cagurangan is the publisher of the Pacific Island Times..


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