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Food stamp cuts force families to get by with less

November 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program mean that the more than 47 million food stamp recipients will now receive less money each month to buy groceries. To examine the issue, Jeffrey Brown speaks with Ellen Teller of the Food Research and Action Center and Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The number of Americans enrolled for food stamps has soared by 70 percent since the recession, but additional assistance for those in need is dwindling. And the future of one of the country’s largest safety net programs isn’t bright.

Hari Sreenivasan begins our coverage with this report.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Starting today, more than 47 million food stamp recipients have to get by with less. A temporary addition in benefits has expired, four years after it took effect as part of an economic stimulus program. Food stamp recipients at this Arlington, Virginia, food bank said today they will feel the loss.

DULCE AGUILAR, food stamp recipient: It’s going to affect me a lot, because we’re on a tight budget. A lot of people are on a tight budget, and if we don’t have a certain amount of money, we’re going to starve.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as it’s formally known, now serves one in seven Americans. Last year, it cost roughly $80 billion, more than double what it cost in 2008.

The new reductions will save about $5 billion for this fiscal year. For a family of four, that means losing $36 a month and going back to a total monthly benefit of $632.

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In Georgia, Jon West with the Atlanta Community Food Bank says that amount of money simply won’t go far enough.

JON WEST, Atlanta Community Food Bank: Their food stamps only last them about three weeks out of a month, so with a cut of $36 a month that they’re going to be experiencing now, they’re going to be lucky to make that stretch two, two-and-a-half weeks.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As a result, food banks and other charities are anticipating increased demand.

Back in Virginia, Charles Meng is Executive Director of the Arlington Food Assistance Center.

CHARLES MENG, Arlington Food Assistance Center: Well, it will clearly increase the number of families we see on a daily and a weekly basis.

You know, it’s — these are families who really do need food. These are not families taking advantage of a system or a situation. These are families that are really desperately struggling, and not having enough food.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All of this as Congress is debating making new cuts, as part of a broader farm bill. The Republican-controlled House is pushing to take $39 billion out of food stamps over the next decade.

Republican Frank Lucas of Oklahoma chairs the House Agricultural Committee.

REP. FRANK LUCAS, R-Okla.: It increases funding for food banks, which have been successful in effectively utilizing government dollars and securing private sector donations in order to feed hungry Americans.

Ultimately, this bill encourages and enables work participation and makes commonsense reforms, closes program loopholes, and eliminates waste, fraud, and abuse in the SNAP program, saving the American taxpayer nearly $40 billion.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Democratic majority in the Senate is pushing a farm bill that also cuts food stamps, but by far less: $4 billion over 10 years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Brown takes a closer look at the immediate impact of these changes and what may lie ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we explore some of the changes on the table with Ellen Teller of the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit that works with hundreds of groups around the country to eradicate hunger. And Robert Rector is with the Heritage Foundation. His work on this is considered highly influential with Republican members in Congress.

And welcome to both of you.

ELLEN TELLER, Food Research and Action Center: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ellen Teller, this immediate action, cutting back assistance, allowing what was a — considered a temporary increase to lapse, you don’t think this is a good idea?

ELLEN TELLER: No. No, I don’t.

Initially, when Congress was drafting the Recovery Act, they put in place this boost in SNAP for food stamp allotments, and it was never intended to affect a family by seeing a reduction from one month to the next, but because of congressional interference, today, we are seeing a cliff. So a family going into a grocery store today will see — every SNAP household will see a reduction in their monthly benefits lower than what they received last month.


ROBERT RECTOR, Heritage Foundation: Well, this increase was intended to be temporary as part of the stimulus package.

No one that I’m aware of ever advocated it being permanent. And I don’t even think that the Obama administration is seeking to make it permanent. But, also, I think it’s very important that you really can’t talk about the safety net one program in isolation. We have over 80 different programs providing cash, food, housing, and medical care to poor people. Doesn’t include Social Security and Medicare.

We spend close to a trillion dollars a year. That’s about $10,000 for each low-income American. This constitutes a cut of about of about one-half of 1 percent of that total spending.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, but stay on this one, because are you suggesting that people will not feel this right away?

ROBERT RECTOR: I’m suggesting very few people get food stamps alone, and, therefore, you have to look at the overall package of assistance that they get, which is closer to $27,000 to $30,000 a year.

In that context, this type of restraint is less alarming than if you just look at food stamps alone. Very few families get food stamps alone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ellen Teller.

ELLEN TELLER: We are now talking about $1.40 per person per meal.

And whereas the SNAP allotment could have lasted for three weeks, because of this reduction in a household’s monthly expenditure through SNAP for food, emergency food providers will be seeing people coming in earlier in the month needing assistance. SNAP only goes for food purchases.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about his larger argument, that it has to be seen — even though it’s only for food purchases, it has to be seen within this larger safety net?

ELLEN TELLER: Well, I think what happened was is that the — the recession dragged on longer than people had anticipated.

And for low-income people, they have been slower to see the rebound in the economy, so their needs have not changed. They still see their hours suppressed, unemployment high, and they still need this food assistance. And they rely on SNAP for making sure that their households have a nutritionally adequate diet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s part of the argument, right? Because you’re — one argument is a very large argument that’s been going on for a long time.


JEFFREY BROWN: Another one is the immediate, what happened during the recession, and things haven’t recovered for a lot of people.

ROBERT RECTOR: I think that’s exactly right, which is why we’re not advocating directly going back to pre-recessionary spending.

But the fact is, we’re spending about 50 percent more on aggregate welfare than we were when the recession began. It’s a huge, huge increase. And under Obama’s budget, it’s not scheduled to go down. The trillion dollars a year will eventually go up to a trillion-and-a-half a year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think the numbers have gone up so high in terms of the number of people and…


ROBERT RECTOR: Well, I think part of it is the economy. No one could deny that. There’s serious rates of unemployment that continue.

But this program also is rife with fraud. It has an outreach to bring people in. Another thing that they have done is get rid of the asset limits which were traditionally part of this program. You can have a million dollars in the bank. You’re unemployed, you can get into food stamps. Now, that’s an outrage.

We also have weaker work requirements on this program than we do on the programs for single mothers. An able-bodied 20-year-old who isn’t working isn’t required to do a single thing to get his food stamp benefits. I think that’s an abuse of the taxpayer. It’s probably not good for the recipient either.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that true about the million dollars first?

ELLEN TELLER: Well, first of all, the program works. It works exactly the way it was designed. When the economy is week, food stamp participation goes up. When the economy is strong, participation will go down.

And the Congressional Budget Office, the independent arm of Congress that scores or calculates how things will project out into the years, says that, by the end of this decade, we will see a dramatic drop in food stamp participation. Why? Because the economy is expected to get stronger and people, as they move into jobs, as their hours increase, as they have more income, they come off the food stamp program. People come on and off the program. They don’t stay on the program for long periods.

ROBERT RECTOR: But there are abuses, OK? And she just ignored the fact that they have removed the asset test.

This was a program that used to be, you would — when you didn’t have cash to support yourself and feed yourself, then you could get into this program. We did away with that now.


ROBERT RECTOR: There’s no meaningful asset test. One of the things that the Republicans are doing is restoring the asset test.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, answer that.

ELLEN TELLER: A bipartisan Congress decided years ago that working poor families with children who are making an income may need to acquire some assets and — in order to move out of poverty.

And so it was a bipartisan Congress that gave states the option to remove the asset test. And you still at the end of the day have to, in your net income, still be eligible for food stamps. So you still have to go through all the other tests in order to get on the food stamp program.

JEFFREY BROWN: And their argument — and your argument is that the program basically works, correct?


And it works for the people in this country who need it. And if you look at it, 83 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with a child, an elderly person or disabled person. So that — this is the largest of the child nutrition programs. And these are the people who we are supporting with SNAP.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, those facts haven’t changed, right, a®MDNM¯bout where most of the money actually goes.

ROBERT RECTOR: Well, the reality is that about half of the able-bodied people on food stamps don’t do any work during the month.

And I can see that they have problems with unemployment, but the reality is…


JEFFREY BROWN: … problems with unemployment, right?

ROBERT RECTOR: They do, right.

But in the long-term sense, OK, in the long-term sense, I believe that this program, along with the other 80 programs that provide assistance to low-income able-bodied people, those able-bodied adults ought to be required to work or prepare for work or at least look for a job. That constrains costs a bit, and it’s best for the recipient, and it’s fair to the taxpayer.

This program doesn’t do this. It has no asset test. It has no meaningful work or activity requirements.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. OK. That’s part of the larger debate that Congress is — before Congress.

We will watch that one.

Robert Rector, Ellen Teller, thanks so much.

ELLEN TELLER: Thank you.