CHICAGO—On November 1, food stamp recipients saw a significant loss in benefits, about $36 a month for a family of four. Congress intends to cut much more.
It’s a sharp change of course from the last few years where food stamp funding has twice nearly doubled in size. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rose from just under $20 billion in 2000 to over $78 billion in 2012, according to the Agriculture Department.
This month’s five percent cut to SNAP marks the end of a 2009 boost to the program brought about by the most recent recession.
Bobby Joe Bell, 68, a retired Veteran and playwright from Brookline, Massachusetts, received a letter cutting his benefit by over 10 percent.
“I get maybe $90 a month, then they were cut by $11,” he said.
When he speaks, Bell’s voice trembles because of his Parkinson’s Disease. “It’s not all that much. You walk into Trader Joe’s and, you know, you spend $49 and you don’t fill the bag.” Bell said.
Picking up the Slack
With the economy showing more signs of stability, lawmakers believe it’s time to cut the cord, but SNAP advocates warn that it is way too soon.
When government assistance isn’t enough, America’s hungry turn to food pantries, and in Cook County, Illinois the Greater Chicago Food Depository serves over 650 facilities.
According to Paul Morello, public relations coordinator for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the latest SNAP cut is already forcing families to make difficult choices. He said another major cut would be devastating.
“The bottom line is non-profit organizations—the private response to hunger—would not be able to fill the need if any cuts to SNAP happened. There simply aren’t enough resources. Not only here in Cook County, but across the country,” Morello said.
Both sides of the aisle are calling for cutbacks, but numbers vary widely. The farm bill proposal in the democratically-led Senate cuts about $4.1 billion over the next 10 years, while conservatives leading the House want to cut SNAP entitlements by over $40 billion.
Despite the call for cuts, food stamp enrollment is higher than ever—the program supports about 47 million Americans, and close to half are children. But an enormous national deficit and concerns of able-bodied adults gaming the SNAP system, has brought about a strong push for reform.
Trimming the Fat
Those looking to make the deepest cuts to SNAP argue that, because the unemployment rate has fallen, high enrollment numbers reveal a lot of moochers. According to a statement from conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation—a significant influence in the House regarding SNAP—the costly program “discourages work, rewards idleness, and promotes long-term dependence.”
SNAP advocates, however, believe economic improvements still haven’t reached the nation’s poor. Policy analysts at the Washington, DC-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) point to past recessions where declines in poverty and SNAP enrollment lag behind declines in the unemployment rate. According to a July 2013 CBPP report, “the key difference is that this time, the jobs slump is far worse.”
Morello said that even working adults use SNAP benefits because they still have trouble making ends meet.
“I have talked to people who two jobs, who even have three jobs, but who are still on SNAP and still struggling,” he said.
To justify their cuts, SNAP’s loudest critics paint recipients as freeloaders. Critics of Congress believe lawmakers are simply too afraid to confront industry handouts to properly balance the budget.
While the House at one point cut food stamps from the farm bill entirely, lawmakers rejected even basic measures calling for agribusiness subsidy reform.
Substantive changes to the SNAP program also favor industry. According to a recent report in the Washington Post, “Companies such as Coca-Cola, Kraft and Mars have spent more than $10 million in the past several years lobbying Congress to keep their products available to those using food stamps.”
Further cuts to SNAP are expected as soon as Congress can compromise on a new farm bill, but a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) suggests that lawmakers should wait for further improvement in the labor market. The CBO projects that by 2019 SNAP costs will fall back to levels similar to those in the mid-1990s.
Despite concerns of “waste, fraud, and abuse” from lawmakers eager to cut food stamps, “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program,” according to the CBPP.
Morello said it’s important that lawmakers avoid casting SNAP recipients as villains bleeding the system.
“They are people who have lost their jobs or are trying to support a family. They are people like you and I who have seen their hours cut back or have gotten into a medical issue and now their savings are being depleted,” he said.
Additional reporting by Phoebe Ryles