Food assistance on the chopping block even as more families than ever rely on the help
by Eddie Burkhalter
Sep 08, 2013 | 4650 views |  0 comments | 51 51 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In this file photo, Christy Stevens rings up groceries for a customer at Food Outlet on Noble Street. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
In this file photo, Christy Stevens rings up groceries for a customer at Food Outlet on Noble Street. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
Cheryl Freeman receives about $2.17 per meal in food assistance for her two-person household. The Ballplay resident has medical conditions that make it hard to keep a job, she said.

She’s not working now and has applied for disability benefits, but the process is long and arduous, she explained. Her boyfriend works full time but “usually the last week of the month we’re out of food and out of money. It gets difficult.”

Beginning Nov. 1, Freeman will be one of about 910,000 Alabamians who will get less help from the government to buy food. That’s when a temporary boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, will lapse.

In addition, much larger larger cuts to SNAP are being discussed by House Republicans. They're expected to bring those cuts up when they return to Washington next week.

A previous plan this year to reduce SNAP by $20.5 billion over 10 years as part of the House Agriculture Committee farm bill legislation failed. A new group of legislators, headed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is considering doubling those cuts to $40 billion over 10 years.

"Federal Food Stamp spending has more than doubled since 2007,” U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Anniston, wrote in an email to The Star on Friday.

“This September, the House of Representatives is expected to take up legislation that will restore the integrity of this safety-net program, and will also help beneficiaries become more self-sufficient. These reforms will also generate at least $40 billion in savings for taxpayers over the next 10 years,” wrote Rogers.

The $40 billion reduction would deny SNAP benefits to between 4 million and 6 million low-income people nationwide and to 74,000 Alabamians, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Washington-based think tank, which describes itself as nonpartisan, focuses on fiscal policy and public programs that affect low- and moderate-income families.

“It’s seems pretty clear that it’s going to be brought up in the House,” said Chris Sanders, communications director for Alabama Arise, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income residents.

It’s less clear, Sanders said, whether the $40 billion cut to SNAP will make it through both the House and the Senate.

The Nov. 1 cuts will reduce SNAP benefits by $29 per month for a family of three, and take the average benefits down to less than $1.40 per meal, according to an August study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Freeman will have about $2.05 to spend per meal after Nov. 1.

That cut will affect 22 million children in the U.S., 10 million of whom live in families with incomes below half of the poverty line, according to the center’s August study.

Who are SNAP recipients?

Proponents of cuts to SNAP often say it will reduce the nation’s debt, and clean up a costly program rife with fraud.

But advocates for the poor say those assertions are inaccurate, and trying to reduce the deficit by taking food from low-income people is hurting those who need help the most.

The federal government spent about $81 billion last year on SNAP, a number that has swelled since the Great Recession of 2008. In 2007 the program cost about $30 billion.

“Those programs are designed to help people when times get tough. When times get tougher they tend to cost a little more,” Sanders said.

Food stamp fraud is much more rare than many believe, Sanders explained.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last month that fraud in the program was around 1 percent of total benefits in 2006-08, the most recent years for which data are available. Fraud in the program fell from about 4 percent to 1 percent during the 15 years prior, according to the report.

A January study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that most SNAP recipients who can work do so.

Using U.S. Census numbers, researchers with the center found that “among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP — and more than 80 percent worked in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP.”

The study also found that among families with children, more than 60 percent work while receiving the benefits, and almost 90 percent work in the prior or subsequent year.

The study found that the number of SNAP recipients also tracks closely with the poverty level.

The report states that 76 percent of SNAP recipients are children, the elderly, or disabled, and are not required to work to receive benefits.

Those recipients receive 83 percent of all SNAP benefits, according to a 2011 annual report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. The report also found that the average monthly benefit from SNAP in 2011 was $281.

Almost one in five Alabamians benefits from the program, half of whom are under age 18 or are seniors, according to the Department of Human Resources.

While the recession drove up the number of SNAP recipients, in Calhoun County the program has grown steadily since well before 2007.

The number of food assistance recipients in the county increased by 44.8 percent from 2001 to 2007, when 15,387 people received the benefit. The cost of providing that assistance jumped 82 percent during those years, from $9.7 million to $17.7 million.

From 2007 to last year the number of food assistance recipients in Calhoun County climbed by 67.8 percent to 25,821. In 2012, food assistance in the county cost $41.3 million, an increase of 133 percent from 2007.

To qualify for SNAP benefits in Alabama, a one-person household must have an annual income of less than $14,079. A two-person household must make less than $18,941 annually, and a three-person household less than $23,803. A family of four must have an annual income less than $33,527 to qualify.

Statewide, the number of SNAP recipients climbed by 32.7 percent from 2001 to 2007, and again by 66.7 percent from 2007 to 2012.

The SNAP program in Alabama cost more than $1.39 billion last year, according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources. That money generated more than $2.5 billion in additional revenue for the state, which helps support farmers and grocery stores, and created jobs, according to DHR’s 2012 annual report.

Sanders explained that cutting benefits means less money spent in local economies.

“From an economic standpoint you’re taking demand out of the economy,” Sanders said. “Times are tough, and the effects of the recession are lingering for a lot of low-income folks.”

Local impact

“We’re really going to see some hurting,” said Maudine Holloway, director of the Community Enabler Developer, an Anniston nonprofit group that helps low-income residents with food and clothing assistance. “Some of them get so few” benefits, she said.

When the SNAP benefits run low or run out for the month, the recipients come to her, she said.

As SNAP benefits decline, the number of people in need of help in Calhoun County continues to rise. Last year, Holloway’s nonprofit provided food for about 5,000 low-income residents. With four months to go, the organization has already helped more than 4,000 this year, Holloway said.

“If they cut food stamps then we’ll be seeing those folks who try to make it on that alone. I don’t know where they expect the people to go,” Holloway said.

As cuts to SNAP loom, more people are less sure whether they’ll eat regular meals or go hungry. A report released last Wednesday found that last year, 49 million Americans didn’t know where their next meal would come from.

The inability to access quality foods, or going hungry, is referred to as food insecurity by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The problem affected one in five households with children nationwide in the last three years, according to the report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Alabama, 17.9 percent of households experienced food insecurity during those years, according to the report.

“Alabama is the fourth-worst in food security. We’re one of only four that have no discount on grocery tax,” Sanders said.

As for how to address the nation’s long-term debt, Sanders said the problem is a challenge.

“But we’ve got to decide as a society,” Sanders said. “Do we want to address that debt by having everybody pitch in their share to fix it, or do we want to balance the budget on the backs of low-income people?”

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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