Nothing marks the changing political winds in Washington more clearly than the current debate over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In February 2009, Congress added $19 billion to the food stamp program and renamed it SNAP as part of the stimulus legislation. At the time, President Obama and congressional Democrats argued that getting money into the hands of poor Americans was one of the quickest and surest ways to fix an ailing economy.
Just five short years later, Congress allowed the boost to SNAP benefits to expire, cutting $11 a month from each of the 47 million Americans who currently receive the assistance. Now lawmakers are fighting over how much more to cut from the program, as the House and Senate attempt to reconcile their separate versions of the farm bill. The Senate’s version contains a $4 billion cut to SNAP, while the House has proposed cutting $40 billion. Recent negotiations haven’t yet produced a compromise, but Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, has reportedly signaled that the Senate could live with a $9 billion cut in order to pass the legislation.
There is little mystery about what this will mean for the poor and working New Yorkers who receive food stamp benefits. Before this most recent cut, a fifth of all New York City residents — 1.8 million people — received an average of $147.45 per month in SNAP benefits. On November 1, that average benefit level automatically dropped to $136.45 per month. But even before those cuts took effect, poor people struggled to feed themselves on an inadequate food budget. Researchers have found that most families used all of their food stamp benefits by the second week of the month.
Growing Food Insecurity
Food insecurity has been on the rise in New York and nationally, despite the boost to benefit levels in 2009 and the expansion of the food stamp rolls. In 2012, 13.2 percent of all New York City residents were food insecure, up from 9.4 percent in 2000, according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Nationally, food insecurity rose from 10.7 percent of all U.S. households in 2001 to 14.9 percent in 2011. Congress’s proposed farm bills are poised to make these depressing statistics even more grim.
Though the food stamp rolls grew by 120 percent during Bloomberg’s tenure, almost a quarter of those eligible for SNAP benefits in New York City — more than 250,000 families — still do not receive them. Local administration of the program has a profound impact on participation rates, and New York’s participation rate has increased from 64 percent in 2008 to 76 percent in 2010. Much of this improvement was among the working poor, an explicit target for SNAP outreach. The Bloomberg administration also eased the application process for working families in New York by allowing people to apply online and extending office hours at neighborhood food stamp centers.
However, Bloomberg also enforced federal policies that barred unemployed New Yorkers from receiving benefits unless they participated in the city’s Work Experience Program — which requires beneficiaries to work at city agencies or community organizations — even when unemployment levels were as high as 10 percent. House Republicans are attempting to replicate this policy nationally by enforcing the work requirements for unemployed, able-bodied and childless adults, first introduced in the Clinton-era welfare reforms. So far, Senate Democrats have rejected this proposal. However, Republican governors like John Kasich of Ohio aren’t waiting for Congress. Beginning January 1, 134,000 people became subject to being cut from the state’s food stamp rolls unless, in the words of one affected Ohio resident, they agree to “work for food.”
There are a few bright spots on the political horizon, both in New York and nationally. Mayor Bill de Blasio has signaled that he will accept the USDA’s waiver for unemployed, childless adults, essentially waiving the work requirement for the 76,000 city residents who currently have to work for their SNAP benefits. In earlier farm bill negotiations, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand proposed actually increasing SNAP benefit amounts by using the USDA’s low-cost food plan instead of the thrifty food plan, a minimal diet plan that is currently used to set benefit levels.
This proposal did not make it into the Senate’s final version of the farm bill. Instead, Senate Democrats passed a bill that cuts funds from an already inadequate anti-hunger program in a period of high food insecurity. The heady talk of stimulus has been replaced by calls for austerity from both sides of the aisle, and the cuts are hurting the poorest Americans, those least responsible for breaking the economy in the first place.
Maggie Dickinson is a doctoral student in anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is working on a dissertation about hunger and changing welfare policy in New York City.