While debate in Congress rages over whether future cuts to the food stamp program should be billions of dollars or many more billions of dollars, cuts that were agreed to four years ago just kicked in.
Annual food stamp payouts were reduced $5 billion last Friday when one of the more successful economic stimulus programs enacted at the start of the Great Recession expired. (Economists calculate that every dollar of food assistance creates $1.79 in economic benefits.) Republicans refused to consider an extension, so the meager food allowance—around $200 a month for an individual; $668 for a family of four—was slashed nearly 5%.
That translates into a loss of 21 meals a month for a family of four.
More than 47 million Americans (one in every 7) receive food stamps, including nearly 4 million Californians. Only 26 million were receiving assistance before the economic downturn in 2008, but increased poverty and looser eligibility standards increased the rolls. The Food Research and Action Center ranks Bakersfield as the second hungriest city in the country and Fresno fifth.
Almost one in every 10 food stamp dollars that disappears will be lost in California, the hardest-hit state in the nation. The food stamp program—known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at the federal level and CalFresh in California— provides about $1.40 per meal in the state, nearly enough for a large bag of French fries at McDonald’s.
The food stamp cuts join the steady reduction in unemployment compensation and expiration of the payroll tax “holiday” on the list of benefit cuts forced through Congress by Republicans. Another big reduction in unemployment benefits automatically kicks in in January and the GOP would like to add another huge food stamp cut to the list now.
The five-year farm bill, which includes both agricultural issues and food stamps, has been bogged down in Congress for two years. The House GOP wants to whack SNAP by another $39 billion over the next decade, while the Democratic-controlled Senate has offered one-tenth of that.
Congress is divided over dairy supports and other farm subsidies, but disagreement over food stamps dominates the conversation. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that if the House bill were enacted, another 3.8 million people would lose their benefits entirely.
That translates into another 380,000 Californians, mostly kids, seniors and the disabled, looking for alternative sources of nourishment other than eating. Conservatives have argued that cuts in food stamps will encourage people to work, rather than participate in a program rampant with fraud.
However, the fraud is as nonexistent as the voter and welfare fraud regularly touted by the right. Even Joseph Weber at Fox News was hard-pressed to make an argument for SNAP fraud in his story entitled, “Lawmakers could save millions by targeting food stamp fraud—will they?”
Although SNAP fraud is, indeed, in the millions, even Weber acknowledges that it is “relatively small considering the government pays out roughly $70 billion in annual food stamps benefits.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service notes that food stamp fraud dropped from 4% in 1993 to 1% in 2006-08, according to the latest available data.
Food stamp recipients, by and large, are not lazy, greedy or thieves. On the contrary, all the evidence indicates that they are hungry—and are about to get a lot hungrier, very soon.