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Hunger a persistent problem for poor Americans as Republicans mull SNAP cuts

July 19, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Spending on social welfare programs like SNAP, also known as food stamps, would be dramatically cut under the White House budget unveiled in May. In Arkansas, a state that mirrors the national picture, 14 percent of the population was on food stamps last year. How would a cut affect poor families, the state’s budget and even local grocery stores? Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressional Republicans yesterday unveiled a budget that would dramatically curb spending on a host of social welfare programs, including the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, better known as food stamps.

The president’s budget released earlier this year also included deep cuts to the program.

To see how those proposals might play out, NewsHour special correspondent Cat Wise recently traveled to Arkansas, a state that voted heavily for Mr. Trump.

This report is part of Chasing the Dream, our ongoing series on poverty and opportunity in America.

CAT WISE: In the small town of Thornton, Arkansas, Joannie Cayce fires up her truck twice a month, and drives to a Wal-Mart about 30 miles away to stock up on fruits, vegetables, meat, milk and other products donated by the company.

When she returns to the local food pantry her family has run since the 1950s, some 200 residents are waiting, and a desperate rush begins.

WOMAN: We get paid every two weeks, and, by the end of the week, it’s like the cupboards are bare, and we’re ramen noodling, you know?

WOMAN: I got two kids at the house and stuff that’s hungry that I have to feed.

CAT WISE: Ms. Cayce, as she’s known here, says the number of people she serves each month has nearly doubled in the past year-and-a-half, from 350 to 650, even as the state’s economy has improved.

JOANNIE CAYCE, Cayce Charities: We see no employment, no grocery stores, no craft stores. Mostly, the families are generationally poor, and they can’t move. They don’t have the money to move or anywhere to go to move.

CAT WISE: The day we visited, Brittney Williams came to Ms. Cayce’s with her two young daughters. At mid-month, she’s already run out of the $231 a month she receives in food stamps, or SNAP, the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for the poor.

BRITTNEY WILLIAMS, SNAP Recipient: I’m out of food stamps within two weeks. And that’s another two weeks week-and-a-half, two weeks, that I’m sitting here, well, how am I going to feed my kids? You know, what am I going to do next? Am I going to have to beg people for food, or go to Ms. Cayce, or what if Ms. Cayce don’t come back to me in time, and I run out?

CAT WISE: Brittney’s husband, Daryl, works full-time as a security guard at the local sawmill, making $11 an hour. He says the family’s bills have been piling up for months, and that they’re now facing eviction.

DARYL WILLIAMS, Security Guard: I have got a truck payment outside. I have got all the utilities in here. After buying pull-ups and wipes for them included, I have got maybe $50 to $100 left a month, and that’s got to go in for gas, so I can get back and forth to work for the next two weeks.

CAT WISE: To qualify for food stamps, a family of four in Arkansas must make less than $32,000 a year. Last year, 14 percent of the state’s population was on SNAP, or about 426,000 people. That percentage mirrors the national picture.

In 2016, 44 million Americans were on SNAP, receiving an average benefit of $126 per person per month, or about $1.40 a meal. For years, the program has been in the crosshairs of conservative lawmakers, who say the government simply can’t sustain a federal program that last year cost $71 billion, up from $33 billion in 2007, before the recession.

REP. BRUCE WESTERMAN, R-Ark.: Instead of lifting people out of poverty, many of our welfare programs are actually trapping people in poverty.

CAT WISE: Bruce Westerman is the Republican U.S. representative of the 4th District in Arkansas, which includes Thornton.

REP. BRUCE WESTERMAN: We have got to do something to get the debt under control. It’s either do it the easy way now, which may not seem easy to some, or have the whole thing come crashing down and not be able to provide SNAP, or Medicare and Medicaid or anything to anyone because we’re in a financial crisis.

CAT WISE: Mick Mulvaney is the Trump administration’s director of the Office of Management and Budget.

MICK MULVANEY, Director, Office of Management and Budget: We’re no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs, but by the number of people we help get off of those programs.

CAT WISE: In May, the White House presented its budget, which aimed to slash federal spending by $3.6 trillion over the next decade. If Congress were to pass that budget, SNAP would lose $193 billion, around a quarter of its funding.

The plan calls for tightening standards on who qualifies for the program, and, for the first time, the budget shifts a large chunk of the cost to states, starting with 10 percent in 2020 and rising to 25 percent in 2023.

For Arkansas, that would mean $144 million added to its state budget each year.

KATHY WEBB, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance: I don’t see where we would make up that $144 million.

CAT WISE: You don’t think the state can make that up?

KATHY WEBB: I don’t think the state can make that up.

CAT WISE: Kathy Webb is a former state Democratic representative who now runs the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, a nonprofit organization connecting and advocating for the state’s food banks. She says private charities could not fill the gap.

KATHY WEBB: We cannot make up the difference. And all of the charitable food network put together is about a 20th of what the federal safety net is.

CAT WISE: Webb also worries about the effect a SNAP cut would have on grocery stores in poor communities.

RANDY LINDSEY, Bottom Dollar Mercantile: It takes everything to make it. There is no slack.

CAT WISE: Randy Lindsey and his wife, Janice, run the Bottom Dollar Store in Bearden, near Thornton. It’s one of the few stores in the area selling fresh produce and meat, as well as household items, flowers and more. Lindsey, a Trump supporter, says, in a tough economy, every little bit helps.

RANDY LINDSEY: If I lost 25 percent of SNAP, for me, it would mean cutting 10 to 15 hours a week, or roughly 40 hours a month off payroll.

CAT WISE: So your employees would be impacted?

RANDY LINDSEY: Yes. It would impact employees. That’s a pretty good chunk to lose. There’s not much gravy in this operation. We make less money, then something has to be cut.

CAT WISE: Conservatives often point out that SNAP expanded considerably under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and they are correct. The rise was particularly acute during the recession of 2008, when millions lost work and joined SNAP’s rolls.

Benefits were also increased as part of the Stimulus Act, the 2009 law that pumped billions in federal spending into communities across the country. Yet, since late 2012, both spending and the number of people on SNAP have fallen, and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that, if no changes were made, the share of the population on SNAP would return to pre-recession levels by 2027.

Still, SNAP remains historically high, as more working families like the Williams, and seniors like 63-year-old James Jackson earn less, thus qualifying for the benefit.

JAMES JACKSON, SNAP Recipient: Anybody, anyone, at any time can be affected by poverty.

CAT WISE: Nearly 25 percent of all seniors in Arkansas face the threat of hunger. That leads the nation, according to a recent report.

Jackson, a trained chef and a professional painter, has struggled to find work since his truck broke down. He now lives in subsidized housing in Little Rock and receives $172 a month in food stamps. He voted for President Trump, but urges him not to make these cuts.

JAMES JACKSON: Give me a chance to get off the very program that you’re trying to cut. I want to get off. But if you take away my ability to get off, what can I do?

CAT WISE: In the long run, it’s more economic opportunities, rather than government assistance, that Congressman Westerman says will best help the people of his state.

REP. BRUCE WESTERMAN, R-Ark.: It’s a shame that we have to have a program that large in this country. We need to provide more opportunities for people that are good-paying jobs, and not just jobs, but careers where they can build homes and communities.

CAT WISE: Back in Thornton, after the rush has passed, Joannie Cayce listens to the desperate plea of a woman who couldn’t get there today.

WOMAN: I am a grandmother of four. I live alone. Please, please, help me.

JOANNIE CAYCE: It’s the people that don’t come in, it’s the people that live 30 miles outside of this little food bank and that I don’t know about or that I can’t reach, it’s those people that keep me awake at night, those children that I know that are out of school that aren’t getting a breakfast and lunch.

CAT WISE: Some hungry families may not be able to get to her, but Ms. Cayce spends the rest of her day making home deliveries.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Cat Wise in Thornton, Arkansas.

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