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
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.

What We're Following See More »
Mueller Agrees to Testify, but Only in Private
2 days ago
Trump Loses in Court Again
4 days ago
Trump Pulls the Plug on Infrastructure
4 days ago
Parties Go to Court Today Over Trump Banking Records
4 days ago
Tillerson Talking to House Foreign Affairs
5 days ago

"Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was spotted entering a congressional office building on Tuesday morning for what a committee aide told The Daily Beast was a meeting with the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs committee and relevant staff about his time working in the Trump administration. ... Tillerson’s arrival at the Capitol was handled with extreme secrecy. No media advisories or press releases were sent out announcing his appearance. And he took a little noticed route into the building in order to avoid being seen by members of the media."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.