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Food stamp program changes lead to ‘staggering’ increase in need

November 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Stimulus funds used to boost the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program during the recession ran out Nov. 1, meaning the growing pool of Americans who rely on food stamps will have to make do with less. The NewsHour's Mary Jo Brooks reports on how the cuts impact families and how other organizations are picking up the slack.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Thanksgiving week is naturally a time when closer attention is paid to the role of food in our daily lives, including concerns over how we get it, the cost, the nutritional value, and why some don’t have enough to eat. We will be looking at some of those issues throughout this week, starting tonight, with a report on the impact of changes to the food stamp program.

The NewsHour’s Mary Jo Brooks filed this story from Colorado.

WOMAN: Go ahead and grab three of those?

ANGIE MOGAKA, food stamp recipient: Three?

MARY JO BROOKS: Twenty-four-year-old Angie Mogaka spends a lot of time shopping and preparing food for her two young daughters in Denver.

ANGIE MOGAKA: That saves a lot.

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MARY JO BROOKS: Six months ago, she was forced to quit her job to care for her mother. That loss of income meant she needed help paying for groceries, so she applied for the federal program known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which gave her the maximum benefit for a family of three: $526 a month.

ANGIE MOGAKA: Things can happen in people’s lives where you have no other resources, you have nothing else to go to, you have nothing else to fall back on. Everyone comes to a point in their life where they need help. And that’s my point in life where I am at now.

WOMAN: We have got a lot of whole grain bread, so these are going to fill you up more.

MARY JO BROOKS: But Mogaka will receive a little less help now that extra money from the stimulus program ended on November 1. President Obama had used stimulus money to boost the SNAP program during the recession. But now the money has run out. And even for Mogaka, who receives more than the average recipient, $20 less a month means a lot.

ANGIE MOGAKA: Well, $20 is milk for a month, or $20 is meat for, you know, two meals. Twenty dollars is very — it’s a lot. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is a lot. It’s a meal. It’s milk. It’s vegetables. It’s meat. It’s something. It — and it helps. Everything helps. Every little bit helps.

MARY JO BROOKS: To make up the difference, Mogaka went to Metro CareRing, a nonprofit organization that provides fresh produce, groceries and nutrition counseling free of charge.

WOMAN: Offering people choices that are healthy.

MARY JO BROOKS: The number of people needing that help has skyrocketed, according to director Lynne Butler.

LYNNE BUTLER, Metro CareRing: It’s staggering. Since November 1 at Metro CareRing, we have seen an increase in need. We have seen long lines, longer lines at our facility. And it’s not just because of the holiday season upcoming. We’re certain it’s because of the decrease in benefits. Since November 1, the lines have been down the block.

MARY JO BROOKS: From 2008 to 2012, the recession and weak recovery led more people than ever before to apply for food assistance. In Colorado, the number of individuals receiving SNAP benefits doubled to 511,000 people, or 10 percent of the population.

Nationally, the number grew from 28 to 48 million people, or 15 percent of all Americans. That rapid rate of growth has slowed a bit this year as the economy improved. But the SNAP program still costs $80 billion a year and has become the target of Republican budget-cutters in Washington.

As part of the farm bill, House members voted to cut $40 billion from the program over the next 10 years. The Senate voted to cut $4 billion. So the bill is now stalled. Republicans say the food stamp program has ballooned out of control, giving benefits to people who don’t deserve them.

MAN: This is a nice day today, though, huh?

MAN: He gets by with a little help from his friends and you, the taxpayer.

MARY JO BROOKS: This summer, some lawmakers seized on a report by FOX News about a 29-year-old unemployed surfer in California who used food stamp benefits to buy lobster.

WOMAN: Thank you for shopping with us.

MAN: Just like that, all paid for by our wonderful tax dollars.

MARY JO BROOKS: It’s an image that Cheree Carrigan says is far from the kind of life she leads. A single mother of two teens, Carrigan began receiving benefits when she went back to college. She’s now working on a master’s degree and volunteers 20 hours a week at Metro CareRing. She says she’s very careful about what she buys, and, still, the government benefits don’t cover everything.

CHEREE CARRIGAN, food stamp recipient: We usually run out about a week before they reload, so our last week of the month is usually pretty tight on what we’re eating. We have to be much more careful. And we’re careful to begin with, very — very budget-shoppers.

MARY JO BROOKS: Most Republicans don’t dispute statistics which show two-thirds of recipients are children, the elderly or disabled. But they say more than three million Americans are able-bodied and could work. Cutting benefits for those people would save the program $2 billion a year.

Representative Tim Huelskamp is a Republican from Kansas.

REP. TIM HUELSKAMP, R-Kan.: We believe in work. We require productivity. We think it’s good for the taxpayers. But, most importantly, I think it’s better for these adults and families. Now, the vast majority of folks receiving food stamps wouldn’t be in this category of able-bodied adults.

But there are 3.5 million Americans and — that fit this category and we’re just expecting them to actually look for a job, because, in my area, if you look for a job, you’re going to find one.

MARY JO BROOKS: Huelskamp says tightening restrictions, including eligibility, will help reduce long-term dependency on the entitlement program.

TIM HUELSKAMP: What I’m proposing are some actual policy changes that will probably reduce spending, but some of the welfare reform proposals that worked well that Bill Clinton signed in the mid-’90s, in 1996, trying to apply those and maintain those for food stamps.

MARY JO BROOKS: But Kathy Underhill of Hunger Free Colorado bristles at the notion that the program encourages dependency.

KATHY UNDERHILL, Hunger Free Colorado: What the data shows us is that the average length of participation in the SNAP program is 10 months. So it’s certainly a safety net. It’s not a hammock.

MARY JO BROOKS: Underhill’s organization acts as a clearinghouse for people who have exhausted their food benefits and need advice on where to turn.

Underhill says there’s been a spike in calls since the November 1 benefits reduction, but that pales in comparison to what they would see if the larger cuts get passed.

KATHY UNDERHILL: It would really change the entire landscape of hunger in America if the $40 billion cuts went through. You would be looking at the prevalence of hunger and malnutrition spiking incredibly. But you also have an economic impact. Talk to grocers, and you find out. They will tell you, it means they need fewer employees. They need to purchase fewer products.

That’s means there’s future — fewer trucks moving that product. I mean, it has this whole rippling effect that would be quite profound.

MARY JO BROOKS: The lawmakers on Capitol Hill who will determine the size of the next round of cuts will resume their work after the Thanksgiving break. In the meantime, Angie Mogaka is bracing for a leaner holiday season this year.