Food Stamp Program Faces Congressional Double Whammy

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Andrew Burton / Getty Images

A woman and her daughter counts out food stamps while shoping for groceries in the GrowNYC Greenmarket on September 18, 2013.

Just as Congress sits down in a new bipartisan conference committee to the hard work of funding the future of the food stamp program, benefits are set to drop Friday as stimulus spending dating from the 2009 recession expires. The cut of $5 billion for fiscal year 2014 equals 21 fewer meals a month for a family of four, or 16 fewer meals for a family of three, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In Candler, North Carolina, a 58-year-old unemployed, widowed grandmother named Vicki, who is taking care of her daughter and three grandchildren, says she has little to get by but child support and the $526 a month she receives in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which administers food stamps. “It’s tough as it is,” she said, on the condition that she not be identified by her full name. “It’s going to make it harder.”

The Department of Agriculture calls SNAP the “cornerstone of the nation’s programs for reducing food insecurity and hunger.” Over 47 million Americans participate in SNAP, around an 80% increase from 2007. Despite the escalating costs—from $35 billion in 2007 to $80 billion in 2012—food banks desperately want the federal government to continue the higher rate of benefits. The typical family gets $278 a month, and benefits are means-tested. “Even though the recession is officially over, I have yet to talk to a food bank who has said that their need has slackened or gone down,” says Ross Fraser, a spokesman for Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks. “The last thing on Earth we need is to make it harder for very low-income people to access enough food to feed themselves and their families.”

The decline in benefits is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. In fact, Congress is preparing to impost further cuts in the coming years.

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, the House and Senate had their first Farm Bill conference meeting to try and enact a new 5-year plan for agricultural policy and SNAP. The agriculture industry, estimated to serve some 16 million jobs, has relied upon temporary provisions since 2012. SNAP funding, which is nearly 80% of all spending in the Farm Bill, has remained the thorn in the side of farmers. Republican House leaders have requested an additional $40 billion in cuts over 10 years, while a bipartisan Senate plan passed this summer requested about $4 billion. The new $5 billion in SNAP savings could help House Republicans lower their ask —Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the chairman on the House subcommittee directing food stamps, said he was “interested and encouraged” by the savings Wednesday. The conference overall stirred optimism.

“I could not be more pleased to be at this point in the process,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R- Okla.), who has been undermined in his efforts this year by House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The return to regular order will allow the committee chiefs—Lucas, House ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Senate ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.)—to reassert their control.

The economic recovery is also expected to further taper benefits under SNAP, as family income grows. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2023, the number of those who participate in SNAP will decline by 14 million.