Almost 48 million people in the richest country on Earth are hungry. And the most vulnerable, those receiving food stamps, got even hungrier on November 1st when the program—now called SNAP—was cut by $5 billion nationwide, or about 5.5%.
Over 91% of people who receive food stamps in the US live below the poverty line, and the average food stamp allocation for these people now stands at $1.41 per meal following the cuts. But Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, and like-minded policymakers believe that cuts should go deeper yet for these people.
Question: So who are these 1 in 7 people in the US living on about $4.25 a day for food in our country? Are they “lazy” people who want to live off the system and the hard work of others? Do they not work or not want to work?
Answer: They are mostly children. In fact, “almost two-thirds of the people who receive food stamps in the US are children, the elderly or the disabled, and most of the rest are adults with children,” according to a study cited by the New York Times. SNAP lifted 1.5 million children above 50 percent of the poverty line in 2011, more than any other benefit program, according to research.
For millions, food stamps help eliminate hunger in the immediate term and improve the long-term health of people, especially children, in need. The National Bureau of Economic Research studied the long-term impact of food stamp programs on children beginning in the 1970s, and found that “access to food stamps in childhood leads to a significant reduction in the incidence of ‘metabolic syndrome’ (obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes) and, for women, an increase in economic self-sufficiency,” among other benefits.
Even if one is purely concerned about the numbers and not the social benefits of having a well-fed nation, some argue food stamps seem like a good investment for the overall economy considering all the concern about rising health costs. If children living below the poverty line are positively impacted by having enough to eat through the food stamp program—in such a way that their health is higher quality for decades—it stands to reason there will be less people needing expensive medical care later. One thing most Americans agree on is that we all want a healthier nation, both in real terms and economically.
But the cuts are not over yet. Billions more are scheduled to be cut over the next two years, and possibly subsequent years. The question is how many more billions, since these cuts translate to very real hunger for millions of Americans, mostly children and the disabled? In Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, he eventually wants to cut SNAP by $134 billion. House Republicans recently voted on a bill to further reduce food stamps by about $39 billion over the next ten years as part of the Farm Bill. Section 139 of that bill is called “Encouraging States to End SNAP for Poor Families that Cannot Find Work.”
Republican Paul Ryan said in a recent interview regarding his views on food stamp cuts, “We want to have people go from welfare back to work.” That remark suggests people on food stamps do not work, but according to one important study the overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do, challenging the claim that those who receive food stamps do not work or do not want to work.
Regarding those recipients who are not working but are adults and able-bodied, most Americans recognize that steady work with decent pay is more difficult to find since the financial crisis of 2007, while some conservatives blame poor people for not being able to find work in the current climate.
But how did so many people in the US become hungry and in need of food assistance so rapidly? Ryan argues that the program has increased about 260% since the financial crisis. In 2007, before the financial crisis, about 26 million were in need and on food stamps. That number shot up, nearly doubling in 6 years, when the crisis left many without the resources they previously had to feed their families and themselves properly.
But didn’t the crisis officially end in 2009? And so why would enrollment in food stamp programs continue to increase at such a sharp rate following the end of the crisis? According to a piece called “The Rich Get Richer Through the Recovery” in the New York Times: “Adjusted for inflation, the income of the top 1 percent rose 31 percent from 2009 to 2012, but the real income of the bottom 40 percent actually fell 6 percent.” According to this study the recovery has not proven a recovery in real terms for the poor, specifically for those living below the poverty line. As noted, more than 91% of recipients of food stamps are living below the poverty line; the 2013 federal poverty line is $23,550 for a family of four.
But aren’t all those people on food stamps hurting the economic recovery and slowing it down? Isn’t this a drain on our resources? According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “SNAP benefits are one of the fastest, most effective forms of economic stimulus because they get money into the economy quickly.” Moody’s Analytics estimates that in a weak economy, every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates about $1.70 in economic activity. Similarly, the Congressional Budget Office rated an increase in SNAP benefits as one of the two most cost-effective of all the spending and tax options it examined for boosting growth and jobs in a weak economy.”
Before the November 1st cuts, struggling individuals and families would go to food banks mid-month or close to the end of the month after their food stamps ran out so they could eat for the duration of the month. Food banks have been filling that need but they now expect a “food cliff”—essentially that these families will be coming to ask them for nutrition help earlier in the month due to the $5 billion in food stamp cuts, and that the food banks now will not have the necessary supplies to give out. We will see as the month draws to a close if this proves true. Food banks say there is nothing to cover the increase in demand they expect to receive and as a result they may be forced to turn away hungry families. According to the New York Times, “the Agriculture Department reported that 17.6 million households lacked sufficient resources at some point during 2012 to put food on the table”.