Food Stamps Focus of U.S. Deficit Debate

Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise

Food stamps are at the heart of dramatically different federal budget deficit reduction proposals in the U.S. House and Senate, to the consternation of both recipients and advocates.

“Once they start chipping away at the program and try to reduce SNAP [Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program] funding or restrict eligibility or reduce the benefits, it’s sort of a slippery slope,” said Diane Doherty, executive director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition. “Kids can’t learn when they’re hungry so if we cut benefits, it’s a current crisis but a dark march into the future when we have an unhealthy workforce and unhealthy children because they don’t have access to healthy food.”

“Without SNAP, over 180,000 low-income Cook County seniors would be left in the cold when it comes to their ability to access food,” said Amy Terpstra, associate director of the Social IMPACT Research Center at Heartland Alliance and author of a report that showed food stamps provide 89 percent of federal food assistance to older adults in Chicago. When federal funding is considered, there are an average of 406 meals per older adult annually in the city, according to the study.

The average SNAP household has income at just over half the federal poverty guidelines, Doherty said. A family of four with before-tax income of $2,422 could qualify for a maximum benefit of $668 — which not many receive. In the five years since December 2006, the number of Illinois recipients has grown 49.4 percent, to 1.82 million people. Their $254.3 million in benefits is “free federal money that goes to feed people.” Each of their benefit dollars creates $1.80 in the local economy in the form of grocery store jobs, she said.

SNAP recipients who have seen the headlines about program cuts of $4 billion to $33 billion are worried their food will go away, said Bob Dolgan, spokesperson for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “This is while they are facing incredible challenges: unemployment, cutbacks in wages, and all the other economic effects we’ve seen in the past few years.”

The Senate Agriculture Committee passed a plan that would cut direct payments to farmers on unplanted acreage by $23 million over the next decade and food stamps by $4 billion. Farmers would be paid for a “shallow loss” when crop yields or prices on planted land fall before their historic average, according to the Associated Press. More serious losses would be insured.

The House version leaves subsidies intact but takes all its $33 billion in cuts from the food stamp program; it would eliminate three million people of the 46 million people receiving them, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) web site. But if left unchanged, SNAP costs for the next five years would be $400 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office via AP.

Both committee versions must pass their full chamber and be reconciled before passage and the larger cuts are unlikely to survive the Democrat-controlled Senate, Reuters’ Emily Stephenson noted in April. “But the vote by voice underscored Republicans’ preference for domestic spending cuts over defense cuts or tax hikes as they try to avoid automatic cuts that take effect in January.”

These across-the-board, “automatic cuts” of $98 billion come from the failure of the deficit reduction super-committee to reach consensus last fall. Agriculture bore the biggest share of six committees since directed by House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) to cut $261 billion through 2022, according to Reuters.

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