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July, 2012, Page 24
Illustration by Dan Page
Proposed federal cuts could have devastating effects on the one in six Arizonans who use food stamps. But can we afford to feed millions of people?
You are standing at the check-out counter in WalMart, watching the cashier ring up the items that comprise your meticulously meted-out meal plan for the next 14 days. There aren’t as many fruits and vegetables as you’d like, but grapes, which the girls love, are $2.79 a pound today. That jumbo box of Ramen costs the same amount, and it’ll be a lifesaver when your food stamps run out around the 20th of the month.
“Give plasma,” you jot down on a piece of paper, remembering that without trading blood for gas money, you won’t be able to get to and from work this week. On the same paper, you’ve also noted the page numbers in various newspapers where several food items are advertised. You point these out to the cashier and wait while she price-matches each one and scans your stack of coupons. Saving money on food is so time-consuming it’s practically a part-time job.
Then you pull out your Electronic Benefits Transfer card and feel the same hot surge of shame you felt five years ago when you first applied for food stamps. You are not one of those people. You’ve always worked hard. You have an almost-full-time, minimum wage job. You’ve completed the prerequisites for nursing school and would be there now if not for a two-year waiting list. Your husband would be employed if he hadn’t taken that better job, only to be laid off two months later due to budget cuts. But he’s completed his training to be a police officer and will hopefully get a job soon. You’re trying to better your family’s position. You won’t always be on food stamps.
To help the public temporarily
feel the weight of burdens borne by our nation’s poor, advocacy groups like the Arizona Community Action Association occasionally invite people to take part in a poverty simulation “game.” Participants play the roles of low-income people tackling situations taken from true stories and are asked, “What would you do?”
The above scenario was not part of the simulation, but it could have been. It’s based on the life of a Valley woman who wished to remain anonymous. We’ll call her Ashley. Ashley is one of 1,112,000 Arizonans – one in six people – on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps. Since the recession, the number of people on SNAP statewide has swollen steadily. Still, 19 percent of Arizonans suffer from “food insecurity,” the chronically uneasy state of not knowing where their next meal is coming from.
In fact, the entire system of food assistance is wobbling: The U.S. House Agriculture Committee has recommended slashing $34 billion from SNAP over the next decade. That could cut off 1.8 million Americans from food stamps and 280,000 children from free school lunches, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Advocates are waiting to see which version of the Farm Bill – each of which would impact SNAP differently – Congress will pass before the September deadline, or if they’ll pass it at all.
Stirred into this social issue stew are multiple accusations of food stamp fraud, plus controversy over drug testing for SNAP participants and whether food stamps should be used to purchase only healthy foods. But the real tug-of-war is between two questions: ‘How can we afford to have 46 million Americans on food stamps?’ and ‘How can we afford not to?’
About every five years
, Congress passes a new Farm Bill, or at least attempts to. The last three such bills required extensions, owing to controversy over this legislation that fundamentally affects the way Americans eat. The largest slice of the Farm Bill pie is nutrition assistance, namely SNAP, which cost the country $78 billion in 2011. In the past, SNAP spending enjoyed near universal support in Congress, and that’s still largely true. But this year, facing a massive deficit and loathe to shave military spending, Congress is aiming its scalpel at food programs.
Simultaneously, the government is outlining a budget plan for 2012-2013 that could affect SNAP. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan, for example, proposes $133.5 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next decade. “So as advocates, we’re watching both of these, and we’re going a little hysterical,” says Arizona Association of Food Banks president Ginny Hildebrand. “There is a lot potentially at stake. In some of the versions we could see a dramatic change… in the number of people that could qualify, the amount they could receive per month, how the program is administered, how the program is held accountable, how the program is even funded.”
The Farm Bill could return SNAP benefits to pre-American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) levels, which could reduce households’ food funds by around $685 a year. Another proposal would turn SNAP into a block grant for states, which would essentially convert food stamp funds from a constant, steady stream flowing directly to the poor from the federal government into a fixed amount sent from Washington, D.C. to states, which they could then dole out at their discretion until it ran dry. Hildebrand worries that if that approach were taken, the country would have 50 different varieties of food stamp administration (read: a massive migraine for the grocery industry), and states could potentially have free rein over how they used the money as long as it went toward nutrition.
Block grants could also impact hunger during times of natural catastrophes, Hildebrand notes. “The SNAP program has been critically important in times of disaster… If a state was impacted significantly like Louisiana and Mississippi was during Katrina, if they expended all of their block grant trying to help those [people] and then they didn’t have any more benefits, they would have to literally wait for an act of Congress to add additional appropriation to meet their needs.”
Cuts in the Farm Bill could also affect non-SNAP nutrition programs such as the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which provides a monthly box of groceries for seniors, and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), aka the “Cheese Program,” which donates surplus agricultural products to food banks that comprise 25 to 30 percent of their distribution. The latter program has already seen a 30 percent reduction in the last year because market prices are so high and food is selling well, Hildebrand says. “They don’t have surplus, so [food banks] don’t have surplus. So what we’re trying to figure out is how we make up that 30 percent drop in federal commodities, and our food banks are struggling to do that. That’s a big problem.”
Republican Congressman Michael Conaway, chair of the House Agriculture General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee, says the $34 billion in cuts amounts to only a 4 percent reduction in SNAP spending and would mostly affect dubiously eligible participants. After voting to support the cuts, he recently announced on the Diane Rehm Show, “The bulk of the reductions we’re talking about basically tell folks if you qualify on your own, based on your income levels and family sizes for food stamps or SNAP, you get it. But if you don’t qualify for it because you make too much money but you’re in the program because of some categorical qualification through LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) or others, that you don’t get it… So the cuts… would not force anybody who actually qualifies under income levels and family size levels for food stamps off the program. It would simply mean that only those folks who do qualify would be there.”
However, a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study finds that the budget cuts would “reduce or eliminate benefits for all SNAP households, including the poorest… Some 2 million individuals, disproportionately working families and seniors, would lose SNAP entirely. The remaining 44 million individuals who receive SNAP would see their benefits cut. For example, in September 2012, every household of four would see its benefits cut by $57 a month; households of three would lose $31 a month.”
“I think it seems that because there are so many more people on SNAP,” Hildebrand says, “some elected officials may be overreacting to that number, saying, ‘Oh my goodness, look at these huge payments we’re having to put out. We’ve got to reduce that. That’s draining the federal treasury inappropriately.’” Actually, she says, spending money on SNAP is smart economics. According to Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy, every $1 the federal government invests in SNAP generates $1.73 in economic activity in a community. Zandi named temporary increases in SNAP benefits the No. 1 way to boost economic growth and jobs out of 22 tax and spending options examined.
More important than economics, Hildebrand says, are moral considerations.
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