The Portland (Maine) Press Herald, Sept. 27, 2013

Stimulus funding for the federal food stamps program expires Nov. 1, cutting benefits by about 7 percent.

At the same time, the Republican-controlled U.S. House has passed a bill that would cut from the program an additional 5 percent over 10 years, a total of $40 billion. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, has countered with a proposal that reduces the program by $4 billion over 10 years, setting up what are expected to be tense negotiations.

The Republican bill included ineffective stipulations for able-bodied adults with no dependents, but future debate is likely to center on food stamp funding in general.

Republicans will say that the program, which has doubled in size in the last five years, is being overused. It is an effective, emotional argument that preys on the stigma of public assistance and the enduring but false idea that poverty is the result of laziness.

The Democrats should counter by showing just how wrong and facile that assertion has become. Long-term structural changes to the economy have coupled with the more recent downturn to push more people into poverty.

Continuing to cut food stamps won't drag them out of poverty. It will only lead to more hunger.

Attempts to lower welfare spending should instead focus on policies that will increase educational and employment opportunities, the only proven methods to fighting poverty.

Democrats can start with a description of the average American worker, who is doing more and earning less than workers in the early 1970s.

Real wages have stayed below their 1972 peak for 40 consecutive years, even as productivity has risen steadily.

Stagnant wage growth and the increasing cost of living have made conditions more precarious for the working poor. In fact, some of the nation's highest employers count on the social safety net as a subsidy.

Washington, D.C., a city where 24 percent of residents receive food stamps, recently defeated a proposal that would have forced large retailers such as Wal-Mart to pay at least $12.50 per hour in total compensation. Wal-Mart said the measure would have made it rethink its future in the city.

Wal-Mart earned $17 billion in profits on $469 billion in revenue in 2012, but the nation's largest private employer doesn't pay its employees enough to cover the basics, such as food and health care.

A study by the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Workforce found that one Wal-Mart Supercenter in Wisconsin cost taxpayers at least $900,000 and as much as $1.74 million annually in public assistance for its employees.

And that's not to single out Wal-Mart, only to highlight the situation of most workers in the growing service sector. Low wages, negligible benefits and part-time work are becoming the norm, even more so during the economic downtown that began in 2008.

In fact, only 10 percent of food stamp recipients also receive welfare benefits, a historic low, and 41 percent of households receiving food stamps in 2010 had some level of earned income, double the percentage in 1989. For these workers, a paycheck is just not enough, particularly in the last five years, as unemployment and underemployment have grown.

The 20 million or so Americans who have joined the food stamp rolls since 2007 are not there because their parents taught them to rely on welfare, or because receiving free food is preferable to finding a better job. They are there because it is the only way to feed themselves while also paying for housing, transportation and other everyday needs.

The rapidly expanding use of food stamps is concerning, but those numbers will roll back with a recovering economy. Until then, the program should be there for those who need it.