LENOX -- The cruelty imposed by Congress on our least-fortunate residents seems to know no bounds.
Some 47 million Americans, including at least 18,000 in Berkshire County, suffered a rollback in their food stamp benefits on Friday -- the safety net known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Statewide, 13 percent of the population -- 889,000 people including 334,000 children and 283,000 elderly or disabled residents -- are enrolled in the food stamp program.
So far, the House and the Senate have been unable to agree on extending the temporary increase in weekly benefits approved in 2009 because of the Great Recession.
The effects of Friday’s 5 percent reduction depend on family size and income, but a typical family of four is seeing a cut of up to $36 from an average monthly benefit of $668. When you’re living on the edge, that’s a significant impact on the one in seven Americans receiving food stamps.
Many of the beneficiaries include the unemployed and under-employed -- breadwinners who are among the working poor, earning subsistence wages at multiple part-time jobs.
Because of the slow-as-molasses economic recovery, 20 million more Americans get food stamps now compared to 2009. The program currently costs $78 billion a year, double the amount four years ago, and House Republicans want to gut it.
They passed a bill slashing SNAP by nearly $40 billion over the next decade, as well as tightening eligibility and imposing new work requirements. According to the Congressional Budget Office, such cuts would knock 4 million recipients off the program just next year.
Senate Democrats support a much smaller, $4.5 billion reduction over 10 years. Certainly, fraud should be eliminated. But good luck finding a compromise on such a formidable funding gap.
Complicating any efforts to maintain funding, much less restore the just-imposed cuts, is the fact that the food stamp program is part of a proposed renewal of the farm bill that would cost $500 billion over five years, including subsidies to big agricultural corporations.
The bill also helps hard-pressed dairy farmers stay in business and a continued deadlock could cause a major run-up in milk prices.
Unless and until food-stamp funding cuts are restored, hard-pressed individuals and families can turn to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, a fine agency that coordinates pantries and hot-meal programs in four counties, including Berkshire.
There are five sites in Pittsfield and one in North Adams that provide free hot meals to those in need. Many communities across the county have food pantries for qualified, income-eligible residents. The Food Bank has a helpful website (www.foodbankwma.org) and a phone number (1-800-247-9632).
As we approach the season of giving, whatever the outcome in our nation’s capital, those of us in better circumstances could help out by donating groceries to our local food pantries. Many houses of worship have programs for this worthy goal.
Our neighbors should be spared from hunger or inadequate nutrition since the price of fresh food is beyond the reach of those who depend primarily on food stamps.
Berkshire County (especially some of its tourist-oriented towns) is often depicted erroneously as a prosperous area. Those who live here and pay attention know that’s far from the truth.
Until those benighted congressmen come to their senses -- a tall order -- we have to take matters into our own hands. Otherwise, we all share responsibility and shame for the poverty in our midst that too many people prefer to pretend doesn’t exist.
Clarence Fanto is an Eagle correspondent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.