As Farm Bill Talks Resume, Who Will Fight for the Nation’s Hungry?
Proposals in both the House and Senate would see nutrition assistance to the nation’s neediest cut
And while Republicans have continued to attack the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP), which provides food assistance to the nation’s poorest families and individuals, the Democrats have played along by proposing less aggressive, but still damaging, levels of cuts to the essential program.
And because the last adjustment to the SNAP program expires at the end of this week, the pain caused by a feuding Congress willing to put hungry children and the elderly in the crosshairs amid an ongoing series of budget battles is about to get very real for some.
As Greg Kaufmann, poverty correspondent for The Nation, writes this week:
This Friday, 48 million people—including more than 21 million children—will see their food stamp (SNAP) benefits reduced. Instead of receiving an average of a buck-fifty for a meal, individuals in need of food assistance will get about $1.40. For families of three, the cut means they will receive $29 less in food stamps every month. [...]
The SNAP cuts come at a time when 49 million people—about 14.5 percent of all US households—are food insecure. That means they don’t have enough money to meet their basic food needs, and don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. The Institute of Medicine already demonstrated the inadequacies of the SNAP allotment for hungry families even before this cut.
What are we to make of this—the timing of the cut, the lack of discussion about it on the Hill, and the fact that it will deliver yet another blow to people who are already among the most vulnerable citizens in our nation?
It all points to the same hard truth we see time and again: when it comes to responding to the struggles of the more than one in three Americans who are living below twice the poverty line—on less than about $36,600 annually for a family of three—we prefer to look the other way.
But as the conference committee comes together Wednesday, as McClatchy reports, deeper cuts seem likely:
The Republican-controlled House passed a bill that would cut food stamps by $39 billion out of a projected $800 billion over 10 years. In addition, the House SNAP provision would require able-bodied adults without children to work or volunteer for 20 hours a week to receive federal assistance.
The Democratic-held Senate’s farm bill also would cut food stamps, but by $4.5 billion over a decade. The Senate plan wouldn’t add work requirements.
As Willy Blackmore, food policy editor as the TakePart.com, writes:
We won’t know anytime soon which terrible cut will prevail: the $4 billion cut to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program preferred by the Senate or the $39 billion thrashing of food stamps passed by the House. But one thing is certain: Funding for SNAP will drop starting on Friday, and all recipients will receive fewer benefits.
Among the progressive lawmakers trying to avert the disaster, Rep. Jim McGovern confessed to Blackmore that there were no good legislative options given the current climate in Washington. And because the current elevated funding for SNAP was written with a vague sunset clause when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (or stimulus) was enacted in 2009, McGovern says those reductions are now an “inevitable reality.”
“What we absolutely should not do is make the situation even worse by piling on additional cuts in the context of the farm bill,” he adds. “As a member of the farm bill conference committee, I will fight with every ounce of energy I have to prevent additional cuts from happening.”
For Blackmore, however, Democrats should receive a large portion of the blame the current mess. For not better securing the improved funding for SNAP when they had the chance and because now they have capitulated by agreeing with Republicans that some level of cuts are warranted, he argues a great disservice to the nation’s poor has been done.
“The loss of stimulus funding,” writes Blackmore, “will amount to a $5 billion reduction in SNAP in 2014, and $6 billion in 2015 and 2016 combined. Congress’s epic $39 billion cut would be spread out over the course of 10 years, if it somehow manages to become law. And that would come on top of this reduction, which is, in essence, a Democrat-approved cut that’s 1/3 of the size of the House’s slash-and-burn approach to SNAP.”
Across the country, poverty assistance organizations and food pantries are bracing for the cuts, but in Washington, DC, it remains unclear what powerful voices will take a stand for the nation’s hungry and most vulnerable.
As Kaufmann laments, the drive to cut food stamps
all points to the same hard truth we see time and again: when it comes to responding to the struggles of the more than one in three Americans who are living below twice the poverty line—on less than about $36,600 annually for a family of three—we prefer to look the other way. Even as the interests of low-income people and the middle-class converge—for example, the need for good jobs and fair wages, access to continuing education, a more equitable economy where 95 percent of the gains don’t go to the top 1 percent, and a safety net that is available in tough times or when jobs pay lousy wages—we still find that a SNAP cut like this can occur with hardly a whisper of protest (outside of the advocacy community) at a time when hunger is widespread.
In the 22 years that Swami Durga Das has managed New York’s River Fund Food Pantry, he has never seen hunger like this. Each Saturday, hundreds of hungry people descend on the pantry’s headquarters, an unassuming house on a residential block. The first people arrive around 2 am, forming a line that will wrap around the block before Das even opens his doors.
“Each week there’s new people,” Das told MSNBC.com. “The numbers have just skyrocketed.”
The new clients are diverse—working people, seniors, single mothers—but many of them share something in common: they represent the millions of Americans who fell victim to food insecurity when the Great Recession hit in 2009, but didn’t benefit from the economic recovery.
And the worst may be yet to come.
Food activists expect a “Hunger Cliff” on November 1, when automatic cuts to food stamp benefits will send a deluge of new hungry people to places like the River Fund Food Pantry, which are already strained.
“I thought we were busy now; I don’t know what it will be like then, because all of those people getting cut will definitely be accessing a pantry,” said Das. “It definitely will be a catastrophe.”
Those cuts were never supposed to be catastrophic; instead they were intended to gradually wind food stamp spending back down to normal levels, after boosting them in response to the 2008 financial collapse.
In the aftermath of that collapse, as employment stagnated and poverty increased, food stamp use exploded: From a little over 26 million users in 2007 to almost 47 million in 2012, an increase of 77%. At the same time, the average benefits per person rose from $96.18 to $133.41.
The 2009 stimulus bill raised the cap on food stamp benefits and pumped an additional $45.2 billion into the program over the next several years. But as provisions of the law expire, the program is scheduled to receive a $5 billion cut over the next year alone. Those cuts will reduce monthly benefits for every single food stamp recipient in the country; a family of four will receive $36 less per month, on average.
Billions more in cuts are scheduled to occur in the following two years, despite the fact that food insecurity in America has not even begun to return to pre-recession levels.
“I believe we have a hunger crisis,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, who sits on a House committee responsible for the food stamp program. “When 50 million people in the richest country on the planet are hungry, that’s a crisis.”
There’s little sign that McGovern’s colleagues in Congress will step in to stave off the crisis. In fact, some Republicans in Congress are pushing further cuts to the food stamp program as part of broader budget negotiations that could bump an additional 4 million people off of the food stamps rolls by the end of next year.Those cuts may be a political winner for a few politicians, but for people like Winsome Stoner, they could be devastating.
Stoner was among those to start collecting food stamps during the post-crash era. She was unemployed at the time, and her husband’s salary as a security guard was not sufficient to pay the rent and feed their five children. Now working full-time at the Bed-Stuy Coalition Against Hunger food pantry in her neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Stoner still collects $640 per month in food stamps. Even that, combined with her income and her husband’s income, is not enough.
“It does cushion me a bit, it helps,” she said. “But we still run out of food by the end of the month. The middle, sometimes.”
When there’s no more food left, and no more money to buy new groceries, Stoner and her husband go to food pantries. At the Bud-Stuy pantry, the largest emergency food pantry in New York City, Stoner is both an employee and a regular client.
Visiting food pantries is a common practice for those who can’t stretch their food stamp money, also known as SNAP benefits, until the end of the month, according to Lisa Davis, senior vice president of government relations for the national food bank network Feeding America.
“Right now SNAP benefits are not overly generous,” Davis told MSNBC.com. “They average out to be about $1.49 per person per meal, and we know from our food banks that many of the clients coming to them are those who are receiving SNAP, but the benefits aren’t getting them through the entire month.”
For Stoner’s seven-person household, a monthly SNAP benefit of $640 per month translates to about $1 per meal, assuming everyone in the family eats three meals a day. Thanks to the expiration of the stimulus package’s food stamp provisions, Stoner has already received word that she might soon receive even less—and without knowing how big the cut will be, she’s terrified.
“I don’t know if we’re going to get anything,” she said, her voice rising in agitation. “We’re not sure if we’re on it. I’m really worried, I really am.”“The death knell of the food stamp program”
On the same week that SNAP recipients are expected to lose $5 billion in benefits, members of both chambers of Congress are meeting to negotiate another potentially massive budget cut to the program.
This week, a committee will attempt to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the farm bill. The Senate version includes $4.1 billion in cuts to food stamps over the next decade; the House version includes no language related to food stamps, but House Republicans are expected to insist on including language from a separate House bill, which would slash $39 billion out of program over the course of the next ten years.
If House Republicans get their way and passed a $39 billion cut, it would cause nearly 4 million people to lose SNAP eligibility in 2014 alone, according to projections from the independent Congressional Budget Office. That cut would magnify the effect of the “Hunger Cliff” by orders of magnitude.
“I’m sad to say that we’re constantly putting out fires wherever Republicans try to light them,” said McGovern, D-Mass., a member of the Agriculture Committee and one of Congress’ leading advocates for more robust nutrition programs. As a member of the Farm Bill conference committee, McGovern will be conducting “damage control,” trying to limit the scope of the cuts.
McGovern believes that nutrition policy in the U.S. should be overhauled as part of a plan to end hunger entirely. But instead, “what we’re doing is body blocking this cut and that cut,” he said. Recalling that Barack Obama promised during his first presidential campaign to end child hunger by 2015, McGovern added, “we haven’t done a goddamn thing to do that, to be honest.”
The U.S. food-stamp program is set to shrink in the months ahead. The only real question is by how much.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) currently costs about $80 billion per year and provides food aid to 14 percent of all U.S. households — some 47 million people. Those numbers swelled dramatically during the recession.
A farmers market in Roseville, Calif. advertises its acceptance of EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards, which are used for food stamps. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
But the food-stamp program is now set to downsize in the weeks ahead. There’s a big automatic cut scheduled for Nov. 1, as a temporary boost from the 2009 stimulus bill expires. That change will trim about $5 billion from federal food-stamp spending over the coming year.
And that’s not all: The number of Americans on food stamps could drop even further in the months ahead, as Congress and various states contemplate further changes to the program. Here’s a rundown:
1) The end of the stimulus boost. First up is a big automatic cut to SNAP scheduled for Nov. 1. This is happening because the food-stamp program was temporarily expanded in 2009 as part of the Recovery Act. That bill spent $45.2 billion to increase monthly benefit levels to around $133, on average.
That bump will end on Friday, and benefits will shrink by around 5 percent on average. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a short report calculating what this will mean for individual households:
So, for instance: The maximum monthly benefit for a family of four will drop from $668 per month down to $632. The maximum monthly benefit for an individual will drop from $200 per month to $189. (“The cut is equivalent to about 16 meals a month for a family of three based on the cost of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s ‘Thrifty Food Plan,’ notes CBPP)
Those snips add up: The end of the stimulus program will reduce federal food-stamp spending by $5 billion in 2014. Every state will be affected: California, for instance, will see a $457 million drop in spending over the upcoming year, while Texas will lose $411 million as a result.
2) Congress could cut food stamps even further. The stimulus lapse isn’t the only cut on the horizon. This week, the House and Senate will resume their haggling over a five-year farm bill. The main point of contention, as before, is over how much to pare back the food-stamp program.
The Senate approved a farm bill that would make only minor changes to the food-stamp program, saving $4.5 billion over 10 years (compared with current law).
House Republicans, meanwhile, went even further, voting on a bill that would cut $39 billion from the program over 10 years, largely by tightening restrictions on who could qualify for food stamps: