One of the newest members of the Millionaire Club in Congress is getting an idea this week of what it is like to be poor in America.
Freshman Democratic Congresswoman Suzan DelBene, who lives in Medina, is dining on a food stamp-sized budget, which the federal government calculates is about $4.50 a day or $30 a week per person.
It’s meant feasting on oatmeal, mac n cheese and PB&J sandwiches. No Copper River salmon, filet mignon or even a Portobello omelette.
It’s a menu she has not survived on since college when she and friends pooled resources to get the most out of their limited food budgets. “Macaroni was a staple,” she said.
It isn’t today for DelBene, a former Microsoft exec who is married to a current Microsoft exec and living in a Medina home likely larger than most soup kitchens and most definitely stocked with a greater variety of food.
She’s smart enough to know that, as a Have test-driving the lifestyle of a Have-Not, she’ll invite ridicule from online commenters and skewering by political foes.
They may deem it a cheap stunt. She figures she can’t raise awareness about hurdles encountered by the 1.1 million people on food stamps in Washington – and 47 million nationwide – until facing them herself, even if just for seven days. Twenty-six other Democrats in the House of Representatives are doing the same thing this month.
“This is about starting a conversation,” DelBene said. “While we’re doing this for a week many families are doing this every day.”
They’re doing it now because the U.S. House of Representatives is nearing action on a 10-year farm bill of which the largest single chunk of dollars will go to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from which food stamps are distributed.
A vote originally planned for Thursday, after The Reporter’s deadline, was expected to be postponed because of opposition to House Republicans’ desire to cut funding for food stamps by $2 billion a year; last year the nation spent $78.4 billion on the program.
That’s apparently too much for liberal Democrats worried it will leave millions of poor families with less assistance and too little for conservative Republicans who think too much will still be spent on the program.
President Barack Obama weighed in earlier this week threatening to veto the House version if it reached his desk with the food stamp cut intact. Meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled Senate pared $400 million a year from SNAP in the version of the farm bill it passed. If the House passes a bill, the two chambers will need to reconcile their differences.
Though DelBene is opposing the cut to food stamps, she could wind up voting for the bill because of other items contained in the 629-page legislation. She did vote for it as a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
“There are definitely good pieces,” she said.
For example, it preserves a work training program for food stamp recipients, which she requested. There also are provisions to help berry growers, dairy farmers and producers of specialty crops which populate her 1st Congressional District.
It’s a decision she’s mulling over with leftover pasta, peanut butter and water.
That’s about all she can afford this week.
Jerry Cornfield is a political reporter who covers Olympia for The Daily Herald in Everett, which is among the Washington state newspapers in the Sound Publishing group. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.