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Scary Days Ahead for Food Stamps

Today is Halloween, but the real scare comes tomorrow, November 1. That’s when the additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) benefits that were included in the 2009 Recovery Act run out. Every household that receives food stamp/SNAP benefits will be affected – about 48 million people. For a family of three, the reduction in benefits means a loss of roughly 16 meals per month.

This will play out in predictable ways. Parents will cut back on meals first to spare their children from going without. Nationally, the food insecurity rate for children is 21.5 percent, and in some states, it climbs to 30 percent. There is only so much cutting back that parents can do. Hunger and food insecurity rates for both children and adults will increase – unless the economy improves more quickly than it has since the recession officially ended, more than four years ago now. 

The loss of the additional SNAP benefits in the Recovery Act dovetails with another imminent threat to families who participate in SNAP. The Senate and the House of Representatives are negotiating a new U.S. farm bill. Cuts to food stamps are the top item of business. If many members of the House have their way, millions of people will be thrown out of the program. The House is pushing for work requirements  – which may sound like a good idea, except that millions of people who need SNAP aren’t working because they can’t find jobs. Presently there are three job seekers for every job available. The percentage of people unemployed for six months or more hasn’t been this high since the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s. 

Last week, my colleague Derek Schwabe previewed the 2014 Hunger Report, Ending Hunger in America, whose release is coming up on November 25. It is possible to end hunger in our country, but not in this economy or with this Congress. This Congress doesn’t seem to understand that when jobs are scarce, the country needs a safety net that is strong enough and broad enough to keep people from falling into the void. Most of the 2014 Hunger Report is focused on creating jobs and improving job quality. I’ll say more next week about the jobs agenda in the report, but since this seems to be a moment of reckoning for SNAP, I wanted to use this blog post to talk about the program and about the safety net more generally. 

While working on the 2014 Hunger Report, I had a chance to speak with a number of people who rely on food stamps/SNAP and other forms of government assistance to supplement their low incomes. One of these was 87-year-old Lucy Jeffers. Ms. Jeffers lives in a subsidized housing complex in Takoma Park, Maryland, a town where I lived for more than 10 years. I spoke with her earlier this year, not long after the first year of across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending -- known as sequestration – went into effect.

Ms. Jeffers 004A widow living alone, Ms. Jeffers receives just $30 per month in food stamp benefits. Sequestration did not affect her SNAP allotment, but it did raise the cost of her rent by $11 per month. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like too much, but Ms. Jeffers lives on less than $800 per month in Social Security, so $11 is a big deal for her. Her rent is fixed, but her food budget is not. Ms. Jeffers told me that the $11 hike in rent was going to make it harder to stretch her SNAP benefits. As it is, by the end of the month her meals consist mostly of plain rice with a little butter and some tea.

Some members of Congress say that food stamps must be cut because government spending is out of control. Is this a valid argument? Hardly. The House seeks to reduce spending on food stamps by $39 billion over 10 years, which amounts to less than 0.5 percent of the federal budget. The difference in the federal budget deficit won’t even be noticed.

In the upcoming Hunger Report, we cite data provided by the Meals on Wheels Association – the organization that provides meals to homebound seniors – showing that for every dollar invested in Meals on Wheels programs, the government saves $50 in healthcare costs. So if the objective is deficit reduction, cutting SNAP or other nutrition assistance is exactly the opposite of what Congress should be doing.

The 2014 Hunger Report makes the case that hunger in the United States can become a thing of the past – if Americans decide that it should be. We back up our argument with solid evidence. But one sure way not to end hunger in America is to move backward by taking food from 48 million low-income people, whether they are elders like Ms. Jeffers, schoolchildren, babies, disabled people, low-wage workers, or “others.” Todd Post

 

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