Although the very foundations of our global family's security was threatened on Sept. 11, I am heartened -- as a local child and family advocate -- to feel a strong and renewed sense of community. The days ahead bring us uncertainty, however, and while Spokane is not likely to be a target of terrorism, our economic security is fragile. As we face the future together, our American values will not let us turn away from those in need.
We need to remember that security comes in many forms: safety, health and well-being. There is no more vivid representation of security than the ability of parents to put food on the table for their children. In the months ahead it will be harder for some families to make ends meet and it is up to those of us who are able to ensure that a safety net is in place to catch these families if they falter.
Today in Spokane, 30,000 people receive help from the food stamp program -- half of them children. Although our county contains only 7 percent of Washington's population, Spokane people make up 10 percent of the state's food stamp enrollment. It is likely that our local economy and rate of unemployment will be affected by the national economic instability. In this event, the number of families needing help will rise.
These families are our neighbors, co-workers, relatives and friends. The food stamp program is increasingly a support program for low-wage workers and their families as well as parents moving from welfare to work. Food stamps can make a key difference for families in transition and for communities struck by business closures, layoffs and dramatic shifts in the economy.
Food stamps help families put food on the table but they also help to stabilize rural and impoverished communities. Food stamps enable families to purchase approximately $24 million in food from Spokane grocery stores each year, helping to support local businesses and our state's farmers. Research shows that food stamps are the second most important tool we have to counter recession -- only unemployment insurance has a greater impact.
Prior to the tragedies on the East Coast, Congress was debating a five-year farm bill. A critical piece of this legislation includes modernizing the national food stamp program and making it easier for working families to access help. We understand that Congress will resume debate on farm provisions very soon, as well as consider an economic stimulus package. Food stamp improvements should move forward in both of these legislative initiatives.
Along with our colleagues in 10 western states, the Children's Alliance launched a campaign called Food Stamp Target 2001 to ensure that western issues are part of the policy debate. Our mandate is to bring the voices of hungry families to the table in Congress, so they are heard along with all the other voices that agricultural interests bring.
We have listened to hungry families in our communities, talked with state administrators who oversee the food stamp program, met with our members of Congress and developed a list of priorities so that in the end the program can better meet the needs of working families.
The changes we feel are most essential include:
•Rewarding states for taking action to improve access to food stamps for working families and reducing the complexity of program regulations so that families are not bewildered by the application process.
•Making food stamp program rules less sensitive to the fluctuating budgets of working families and more responsive to the real costs of housing, utilities and transportation.
•Restoring food stamp benefits to all immigrants legally in this country. Washington state made this commitment in 1997 and continues to fund state food assistance at $5 million to $6 million per year. The national safety net must again extend to these families that enrich our culture and strengthen our economy.
•Improving the health and nutritional value of the food stamp program by increasing the amount of food stamps available to eligible families and seniors, and increasing the minimum benefit from $10 to $25.
We want to see Congress pass a farm bill that incorporates food stamps this year, to make sure the food stamp program will be up to the challenge in the months ahead. Food stamp improvements should also be included in any economic stimulus package.
Helping our neighbors could never be more appropriate. And assisting working families to put food on the table helps us live up to the values we all hold dear. Linda Stone is the Eastern Washington director for the Children's Alliance.