Senate GOP rejects pandemic food stamp aid while calling to double “three-martini lunch” deduction

Tens of millions of Americans face food insecurity amid the pandemic, including 40% of Black and Latinx families

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published July 29, 2020 12:11PM (EDT)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (Getty/Tom Brenner)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (Getty/Tom Brenner)

Senate Republicans rejected an extension of a program that expanded food aid to families affected by the coronavirus pandemic in their relief proposal but included a provision which would double the "three-martini lunch" deduction for business meals.

The Census Bureau reported that about 26 million adults and between 8 to 15 million children live in households that did not have enough food last month. Images around the country, from Arizona and Texas to New York and Massachusetts, show mile-long lines at food banks amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

But the Republican Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act (HEALS Act), which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., unveiled on Monday, did not include either an expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, or an extension of the Pandemic EBT program, which provides aid to families with children who recently lost access to free meals at schools, The Washington Post reports. It does, however, include a tax break on business lunches.

"It is deeply disappointing that it failed to include a SNAP benefit increase or an extension to Pandemic EBT," Lisa Davis of the food aid group Share Our Strength told the outlet. "We know that childhood food insecurity is soaring to levels we've never seen."

"This bill is entirely divorced from the reality of the crisis this country is facing," added Sarah Reinhardt of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Food and Environmental Program.

The decision comes amid the Trump administration's push to reopen schools despite high rates of infection in numerous states, though President Donald Trump finally acknowledged last week that schools in hot spots would have to delay reopening for several "weeks."

Low-income families have been hit hardest by the pandemic, with nearly a third facing food insecurity in the last month, according to an analysis by the Hamilton Project. The analysis found more than five times as many children facing food insecurity in June than in all of 2018 and nearly three times as many as during the Great Recession in 2008.

People of color, who have been hit hard by the pandemic, have also disproportionately experienced the brunt of the financial shock it has caused. Nearly 40% of Black and Latinx families with children face food insecurity, according to a study by researchers at Northwestern University.

"Given the national conversation about institutional racism and inequality, the decision is baffling," Luis Guardia, who heads the advocacy group Food Research and Action Center, told The Post. "It's hard to think of a program that has SNAP's virtuous cycle of feeding people. That money turns over in the local economy quickly and creates more jobs, and ultimately if people have steady jobs, they aren't hungry."

While the bill eschewed food aid for millions of hungry families, it would double the so-called "three-martini-lunch" deduction for business meals from 50% to 100%. The bill also includes $30 billion for military projects and nearly $2 billion for a new FBI building near Trump's Washington hotel.

"They didn't have money for food stamps, but they had money for an FBI building just so that they can diminish competition for the president's hotel," Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said on Monday.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., told HuffPost that he included the meal deduction increase in hope that it would increase business for venues with "limited indoor dining." The idea was also repeatedly pushed by Trump himself, who claimed it would "bring restaurants and everything related back."

"If your notion of addressing food security is a tax deduction for expensive business dinners but not making sure that no child in America goes to bed hungry, you may be a Republican," Pelosi said on Twitter.

Senate Republicans are also pushing to slash federal unemployment benefits from $600 to $200 per week, claiming that the "generous" benefit makes it difficult for companies to bring back workers despite a lack of evidence. Numerous economists have found that the unemployment benefits have helped prop up the economy, and drastically cutting them would shrink the GDP and cost the country millions of jobs.

Republicans also rejected the Democratic proposal to provide about $1 trillion in aid to cash-strapped states and cities, offering them zero new funding. That could result in mass layoffs for government workers like nurses and hospital employees, teachers and public health and safety workers.

"McConnell's COVID bill is a parade of horribles: Want a $400 tax subsidy for three martini lunches? You got it. Money for hungry American children? Too bad. Want to cut support for workers who've lost their jobs? Sure. A moratorium on utility cutoffs and evictions? No dice," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who sits on the Senate Appropriations and Budget committees, wrote on Twitter. " Can you believe we had to wait more than two months for this ludicrous proposal?? They're wasting time and endangering lives & livelihoods."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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