When the Great Recession hit, food stamps were one of the ways the federal government tried to help struggling families keep their heads above water.
But on Friday, the country’s largest anti-hunger program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is set to take huge cuts to its budget that advocates say will make it even more difficult for poor people to avoid going to bed hungry.
The cuts will effect 47 million Americans and reduce the maximum benefit for a family of four to $632 per month from $668 — a loss of $432 over the course of a year.
The cuts average out to about 2 billion meals per year across the nation. In 2014, the total cut is expected to cost $5 billion, which is equal to the amount of food distributed for free by food emergency groups.
“It’s the first across the board cut where everyone in the program is getting a cut,” Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, told NewsOne in an interview. “For poor people, it was the scariest Halloween ever.”
The cuts come at a time when food pantries across the country are already stretched to the limit, Triada Stampas, senior director of government relations for the Food Bank For New York City, the nation’s largest emergency food organization, told NewsOne. The USDA says 49 million Americans are food insecure, meaning they cannot afford adequate amounts of food. That amounts to 1 in 6 Americans.
“We are talking about asking people to purchase a year’s worth of food with 11 months of money. The benefits were barely adequate to begin with,” said Stampas.
Instead of having just $1.50 to spend per meal, SNAP participants will see that drop 10 cents to $1.40 per meal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that will add up to 21 less meals per month. With most SNAP participants running out of food by the third week of the month, advocates fear that will happen even earlier.
Today’s cuts can be traced back to 2009, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act first boosted SNAP benefits while the country was experiencing an economic free fall. In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which sought to boost after-school meals for low-income kids and allow schools to provide healthier lunch foods.
But Congress agreed to pay for the program by cutting the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increases to the SNAP program.
Groups, such as the Congressional Black Caucus and anti-hunger advocates, opposed the bargain.
“Taking away a kids’ dinner is no way to pay for a nicer lunch,” said Stampas.
President Barack Obama vowed to restore the funding and the bill was approved. Since then, White House Spokesman Kevin Lewis says President Obama has worked to extend the benefits and “proposed an extension of the (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) adjustment until March 2014 in the 2014 budget request.”
Given the difficult relationship between the White House and Congress, it’s no surprise that President Obama’s budget restoration requests were never approved. Now, the White House is laying the blame on Congress.
“These cuts come at a time when many hardworking American families are still struggling to make ends meet in the wake of the worst recession in decades. That includes African-American households 24.6 percent of whom suffer from food insecurity and/or hunger,” said Lewis.
But anti-hunger advocates like Berg say Obama and Congress– both Republicans and Democrats– deserve blame for today’s cuts.
“He never fought for this. He never made any public speeches,” Berg said in criticism of President Obama. “There is a vast deafening silence on these cuts because the people who would normally be excoriating them are actually responsible for them.”
Even more discouraging, say advocates, is that further cuts to the SNAP program are being discussed by Congress. On Wednesday, the Joint Farm Bill conference committee in Congress held a meeting to begin negotiations on the Food, Farm and Jobs Bill.
Both the House and the Senate are proposing further cuts to SNAP on top of those that took effect today; the House wants to cut SNAP by an additional $4 billion per year. The $80 billion SNAP program currently makes up 2 percent of the country’s budget.
“Even as these cuts are going in to effect and families across the country are trying to figure out how to further stretch their impossibly tight food budgets, Congress is discussing even more drastic cuts to SNAP. The House and Senate Farm Bill conferees must put politics behind them and produce a bill that does not further hurt low-income people struggling to eat, but rather moves us toward ending hunger in our nation of plenty,” said Jim Weill, president of the national Food Research and Action Center.
White House spokesman Lewis said that is President Obama’s goal as well. He called it “imperative that Congress pass a long-term, comprehensive Food, Farm and Jobs Bill — legislation that will support a strong agricultural economy while ensuring healthy, affordable food for those who need it.”
But advocates are not optimistic.
Berg said arguments from lawmakers about lax enforcement of SNAP enrollment criteria shows that “racism” is at the heart of these cuts. Republican Iowa Rep. Steve King called the program “bloated,” according to the Quad-City Times. Republicans have been pushing for some time to allow states to implement a drug-testing requirement to determine SNAP eligibility.
There’s also been debate about whether the program’s work rules are strict enough. Republican Rep. Steve Southerland II of Florida made these remarks on the House floor last month, Roll Call reports:
What we have done in this country is wrong. We have failed in introducing the blessing of work to able-bodied people who have the ability, who are mentally, physically, psychologically able to work, and we have robbed them of knowing a better life that they helped create for themselves and their families, Southerland said.
“They are using racially coded language to give the false impression that the majority of people getting these benefits are non-White. The plurality of people who are poor and food insecure and hungry, and the plurality of people who get SNAP, are White,” said Berg. “If they think that poor people have life so easy on SNAP, then they should offer to switch.”
“Most of the people on SNAP are children, seniors, or people with a disability. Those groups make up 87 percent of total recipients. These are vulnerable people,” she said.
That group includes 900,000 veterans who live in SNAP households. Half of all children will go on SNAP during their childhood as will half of adults ages 18 to 65.
Forty percent of SNAP households have at least one person who works. And although there has been an economic recovery based on the numbers, many of the people who frequent food pantries have faced down-sizing or can only find part-time or low-wage work.
Stampas recalled a conversation with one woman in Brooklyn who worked full-time at a bank before it went under during the recession. Now she can barely find part-time work.
“She said, ‘I now have a part-time job but full-time bills,'” said Stampas. “We are technically four years into a recovery, but the tide of recovery has not lifted all boats. Some people are making a lot of money and others are stranded with part -time jobs and full-time bills.”
Stampas said the Food Bank For New York City has set up a hotline to make sure people are getting the full level of benefits. Food pantries are now going to start to ration goods and look to the public for increased help but donations are unable to make up for the SNAP cuts. With more cuts on the horizon, the environment is grim.
“The lines at our soup kitchens and food pantries are already out the door. Congress wants to make them even longer. Hunger exists in America not because we don’t have enough food but because politicians don’t believe that no one should go hungry,” said Mark Dunlea, executive director of Hunger Action Network.