Food-Stamp Dilemma: Eating on $3.37 a Day

FILE - This Feb. 6, 2010 file photo shows a sign announcing the acceptance of electronic Benefit Transfer cards at a farmers market in Roseville, Calif. The House has rejected a five year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill that would have cut $2 billion annually from food stamps and let states impose broad new work requirements on those who receive them.  
National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
Sept. 11, 2013, 6:11 p.m.

Eliza­beth Web­ster wakes up every morn­ing at 5:30 to get her two daugh­ters ready for school. If there’s enough left of the $440 the fam­ily re­ceives each month from the food-stamp pro­gram, her daugh­ters have fruit or ve­get­ables in their lunches.

If not, well then, “you have to get cre­at­ive with a hot plate,” she says.

Her fam­ily has moved from a hotel to an apart­ment in Ken­ner, La. But like oth­er four-per­son fam­il­ies, to re­ceive food stamps their gross monthly in­come must be less than $2,498 ($29,976 a year). In some states, but not Louisi­ana, fam­il­ies must have less than $2,000 in count­able as­sets.

So the pro­spect of cut­backs at the hands of Con­gress sends a shud­der through the Web­sters’ fu­ture. Even if the cut is small — $36 or so for them, un­der cur­rent plans — it could leave them one step closer to the edge.

“I do not want to see them cut the pro­gram,” Web­ster said. “There are a lot of people strug­gling, and it be­comes a situ­ation of, “˜What do I feed my fam­ily?’ “

She and her fam­ily are among the 47 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans — and nearly 1 mil­lion in Louisi­ana — who use the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram — the of­fi­cial name for food stamps — and who are fa­cing the pro­spect of few­er re­sources as Con­gress de­bates just how much to pare the pro­gram back.

The le­gis­lat­ive path for­ward is murky. His­tor­ic­ally a part of the farm bill, the food-stamp pro­gram was sep­ar­ated in­to its own piece of le­gis­la­tion by House Re­pub­lic­ans, who are lead­ing the ef­fort to cut it back. Now, even as the Sen­ate has ap­poin­ted con­fer­ees, the farm bill — minus food stamps — awaits con­fer­ence; its fu­ture, and SNAP’s, are both un­cer­tain.

What is cer­tain, though, is that cut­backs are set to take ef­fect re­gard­less of Con­gress’s ac­tion on the farm bill and the food-stamp pro­gram. Tem­por­ary be­ne­fits as part of the eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus en­acted in 2009 ex­pire on Nov. 1. That amounts to a cut for an av­er­age fam­ily of nearly $30 a month, ac­cord­ing to the Food Re­search and Ac­tion Cen­ter.

For the Web­sters, the hit would be $36 a month, ac­cord­ing to Mike Kan­tor, dir­ect­or of pub­lic af­fairs for the Second Har­vest Food Bank of Great­er New Or­leans and Aca­di­ana, where the fam­ily oc­ca­sion­ally re­ceives as­sist­ance.

Put an­oth­er way, if Eliza­beth Web­ster uses only food stamps, she will be feed­ing her fam­ily on $3.37 per per­son each day after the cut.

Amer­ic­ans’ use of the food-stamp pro­gram cor­rel­ates strongly with the un­em­ploy­ment rate and the strength of the over­all eco­nomy, ac­cord­ing to Kan­tor, which ex­plains why Con­gress tem­por­ar­ily in­creased be­ne­fits at the start of the Great Re­ces­sion. But while the eco­nomy has re­covered to a de­gree, more Amer­ic­ans are ap­ply­ing for SNAP be­ne­fits, de­signed to sup­ple­ment what fam­il­ies spend on food each month. Kan­tor says the pro­gram is a sig­ni­fic­ant source of food for many.

The Web­ster fam­ily’s ex­per­i­ence tracks with the na­tion­al pic­ture. Forced from their home after Hur­ricane Kat­rina, they moved to Alabama, where Eliza­beth, 42, worked as a se­cur­ity guard and her hus­band, Kenny Robert, had a job driv­ing a tow truck. But the BP oil spill left both un­em­ployed, so they moved back to Louisi­ana and ap­plied for food stamps for the first time, Eliza­beth said.

With the pro­gram’s help, her daugh­ters Michelle, 17, and Den­ise, 15, ate fresh fruits and ve­get­ables for snacks, and Eliza­beth could make every­one’s fa­vor­ites for din­ner, al­beit on a budget: spa­ghetti for Kenny Robert, roast for Michelle, and “any­thing you put on a plate” for Den­ise. Without the as­sist­ance, “we just learned how to eat hot dogs and bis­cuits and called them pigs-in-a-blanket,” she said.

Whatever the le­gis­lat­ive out­come, even more cuts to the pro­gram ap­pear likely.

The farm bill passed by the Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled Sen­ate in­cludes about $4 bil­lion in re­duc­tions to SNAP over 10 years. The ori­gin­al House farm bill, which in­cluded $20.5 bil­lion in cuts to the pro­gram over 10 years, failed to clear the cham­ber in June when con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats blocked its pas­sage.

In Ju­ly, House Re­pub­lic­ans de­coupled SNAP from the rest of the farm bill. Now, led by Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, they are work­ing on a food-stamp pro­vi­sion that could cut as much as $40 bil­lion over 10 years, ac­cord­ing to re­ports. Le­gis­lat­ive lan­guage for the Can­tor pro­pos­al is not yet avail­able.

The con­ser­vat­ive case goes like this: The food-stamp pro­gram is ab­used by re­cip­i­ents who are not meet­ing eli­gib­il­ity re­quire­ments. In par­tic­u­lar, con­ser­vat­ives want to tight­en loop­holes that they con­tend al­low able-bod­ied adults without de­pend­ents to re­ceive as­sist­ance; they want to lim­it cov­er­age for the able-bod­ied adults to three months with­in a 36-month peri­od.

“Cur­rently, work­ing middle-class fam­il­ies strug­gling to make ends meet them­selves are foot­ing a bill for a pro­gram that has gone well bey­ond the safety net for chil­dren, seni­ors, the dis­abled, and fam­il­ies who des­per­ately need the as­sist­ance,” said Can­tor spokes­man Rory Cooper.

An­ti­hun­ger ad­voc­ates say House Re­pub­lic­ans’ pro­posed cuts would hit some of the needi­est Amer­ic­ans hard, and they ar­gue that the law already con­tains ad­equate re­stric­tions against ab­use.

At the Cap­it­al Area Food Bank, a 100,000-square-foot ware­house fa­cil­ity — a kind of Sam’s Club for food pan­tries in the metro Wash­ing­ton area — of­fi­cials say food-stamp funds typ­ic­ally last re­cip­i­ents two and a half weeks. After the be­ne­fits run out, many go to food pan­tries to help make ends meet, ac­cord­ing to the Food Bank’s Bri­an Banks.

Con­ser­vat­ives, mean­while, ar­gue that food-stamp fund­ing has been rising too quickly. The pro­gram cost about $78.4 bil­lion to help feed roughly 47 mil­lion par­ti­cipants in 2012, ac­cord­ing to the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment. That’s up from about $17 bil­lion from 2000, when 17 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans par­ti­cip­ated.

“The na­tion­al debt has now topped $16 tril­lion and will con­tin­ue to grow rap­idly for the fore­see­able fu­ture. To pre­serve the eco­nomy, gov­ern­ment spend­ing, in­clud­ing wel­fare spend­ing, must be put on a more prudent course,” wrote the Her­it­age Found­a­tion’s Robert Rect­or and Kath­er­ine Brad­ley in a white pa­per.

An­ti­hun­ger ad­voc­ates, though, point to a spike in the num­ber of Amer­ic­ans who are “food in­sec­ure,” a term used by the gov­ern­ment, that cor­rel­ates to the re­ces­sion. Ac­cord­ing to USDA, the num­ber has re­cently stayed at roughly 15 per­cent, with 17.6 mil­lion house­holds clas­si­fied as such in 2012, ac­cord­ing to a newly re­leased re­port. With 59 per­cent of food-in­sec­ure house­holds us­ing food stamps, ad­voc­ates ar­gue that it’s im­port­ant not to slash SNAP.

Now that Con­gress has re­turned, the farm bill and the food-stamp pro­gram will com­pete for scarce le­gis­lat­ive time with the situ­ation in Syr­ia, ap­pro­pri­ations bills, and a de­bate over the debt-ceil­ing lim­it, which the gov­ern­ment is ex­pec­ted to reach some­time this fall. Among an­ti­hun­ger or­gan­iz­a­tions, op­tim­ism is in short sup­ply.

Food Re­search and Ac­tion Cen­ter Pres­id­ent Jim Weill puts the odds at “12 per­cent” that the House will pass a bill, but he pre­dicts that it won’t make it out of con­fer­ence with the Sen­ate.

Sen­ate Demo­crats, though, are op­tim­ist­ic they will be able to stave off the steep cuts that Can­tor is ex­pec­ted to pro­pose. They point to the 18 Re­pub­lic­ans who voted with Demo­crats on fi­nal pas­sage of the Sen­ate’s farm bill.

“So many in both parties want to pass a farm bill that re­forms pro­grams, ends un­ne­ces­sary sub­sidies, re­duces the de­fi­cit, and helps cre­ates Amer­ic­an ag­ri­cul­ture jobs,” said Cul­len Schwarz, a spokes­man for Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

COR­REC­TION: This story has been up­dated to re­flect the fact that Louisi­ana does not have an as­set test for ap­plic­ants seek­ing to qual­i­fy for SNAP.

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