Cut In Benefits Makes Thanksgiving Hard For The Hungry

Millions of SNAP recipients have grown food insecure, increasing demand at nation’s food pantries.
By @FrederickReese |
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    (Photo/Howard Kang via Flickr)

    (Photo/Howard Kang via Flickr)

    Thousands of volunteers nationwide attempted to bring Thanksgiving to those who could not afford to celebrate it. In Detroit, several organizations, including the Doors of Success Foundation, Meals on Wheels, the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church and the Salvation Army of Metro Detroit, fed thousands who would have went without.

    “I tell the volunteers this is their world 365 days a year, so if we do this five days a year to bring some joy to someone who doesn’t have a house or something to eat, it’s worth it,” said Shalamar Guerrant, founder of Doors of Success.

    For the hungry in America, this holiday season presents a two-sided slight. The sunsetting of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act means that $5 billion per year has been slashed from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, resulting in cuts across the board in food stamps benefits. This created a situation where millions of SNAP recipients have grown increasingly food insecure, causing an increase in demand at the nation’s food pantries.

    “All of our food banks have really ratcheted up what they have had to serve,” said Ross Fraser, media relations director at Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks that serve 61,000 food pantries across the nation. Fraser has noticed a rush of clients nationwide, including many who have never used a food pantry before, as they “need help more often because they have fewer food stamps.”


    The retreat of governmental assistance

    As reported by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 90 percent of all SNAP benefits run out by day 21 of any given month. SNAP benefits, on average, allow $1.40 per person per meal after the recent cuts. But the average cost for a meal is about $2.50. In areas with high cost-of-living, the per-meal price can be significantly higher. With four out of five SNAP recipients living below the poverty line and unable to work — they are children, the elderly, the disabled or mothers with young children — it is not easy to remedy this deficit. This is leading to a situation where the nation’s hunger situation, which, in 2012 saw 14.5 percent of all Americans being food insecure at some point during the year, has worsened in 2013.

    Marianne Smith Vargas, chief philanthropy officer at Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia, said she’s heard numerous stories of families that were just making ends meet on what they received in food stamps prior to the cut.  “Now, even the smallest cut is forcing them to come to the Foodbank for help,” Smith Vargas said, adding that there’s been a 40-percent increase in families seeking help in November from the same period last year.

    This is complicated by a cutback of government funding to food charities. In 2013, the federal government purchased $495 million in food for charitable giving, from $560 million in 2012. According to Feeding America, this constitutes a 25-percent decrease in federal food deliveries.

    Many food banks and pantries reported a shortage of turkey on Thanksgiving day, reflecting the realities of the demand this year.

    “We would like to have twice as many in the freezer than we have now, so we’re a little concerned,” said Poncho Guevara, executive director of Sacred Heart Community Services and Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, Calif. “People think things are getting better with the economy, but the reality is so many still are struggling. It’s hard to explain how severely the safety net has been cut the last two years.”

    Despite all this, the situation is likely to become much worse. House Republicans have proposed a $40-billion cut to SNAP over ten years — ten times what the Senate Democrats offered. The two sides have shown no signs of compromise on this issue. An additional $6 billion in automatic sequestration cuts will also go into play over the next three years. This is all happening at a time when the other half of the “farm-to-table” solution for the hungry — the Farm Bill, which House Republicans separated from SNAP reauthorization for the first time this year — is seeing moderate decreases and, in the case of crop insurance and miscellaneous spending, even increases in proposed 10-year spending.

    The Republicans are growing increasingly sensitive to allegations of being cold-hearted on this issue. The Republican Party argues that the proposed cuts are needed, as SNAP spending has skyrocketed since fiscal year 2010. The Republicans have said that able-bodied adults are exploiting the program and its work requirement waivers. The Republican proposal would end the use of these waivers, which the Democrats assert is necessary in areas that have neither adequate jobs nor job-training opportunities, which would remove 3.8 million in 2014 and approximately three million per year over the next ten years from the SNAP rolls. It would also limit access to benefits to able-bodied adults to just three months every three years.


    Justifying hunger

    Republicans are justifying their posture with examples such as that of Jason Greenslate, a California beach bum who chooses not to work and uses his SNAP benefit on supermarket sushi and lobster. Instead of pointing out the absurdity of this outlier, the Right has used this to bring back Reagan-era assertions of the “welfare queen.”

    But eligibility for SNAP requires a gross income at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty limit (four in every five recipients are below the poverty line) and less than $2,000 in total assets and as three in every four SNAP recipients stay on the program for less than two years, SNAP is truly a tool of last resort and not a valid income alternative.

    “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,” said Rep. Stephen Fincher (R – Tenn.), who used biblical verses to justify his vote earlier this year to cut SNAP benefits. Fincher is a farm owner who has received more than $3.5 million in federal subsidies and who supported the expansion of crop subsidies, and 20 percent of his constituency receives SNAP benefits.

    Jamelle Bouie, a writer for the The Daily Beast, said reasonable people can disagree about what’s needed to improve the prospects of low-income Americans, but SNAP doesn’t exist to promote mobility. It’s there to provide a nutritional floor for the millions who suffer when the economy takes a turn for the worst. “It doesn’t make sense to cut them, and if you do, you should have something to keep your fellow citizens from falling through cracks,” Bouie wrote.

    Many in government are moving to soften the blow. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has committed $4.5 million in emergency food assistance grants to charities and food banks. Other state legislatures and governors are considering similar moves to counter what is increasingly being seen as being politically irrational: the possibility that the year will pass without a Farm Bill and SNAP Reauthorization being passed, or worse, a passed bill package that makes food-insecurity in the United States even worse.

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