For SNAP recipients, coming policy changes could take them from bad to worse

For SNAP recipients, coming policy changes could take them from bad to worse
Photo by Sophia Nahli Allison

When more than 2 million SNAP recipients in Illinois have their Link card reloaded on Nov. 1, they may notice a difference. In particular, a difference in the amount of money on their card, which will be less. That’s because for the past four years, people depending on food assistance have been getting a temporary boost in the amount they receive monthly, courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The Recovery Act had increased SNAP benefits as a direct form of economic stimulus.

But that extra funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps, is scheduled to end on Nov. 1. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank, estimates that a family of three can expect to receive $29 less a month for groceries.

Laura Washington, The Chicago Reporter’s interim publisher, would have to live on almost $3 a week less than her current SNAP Challenge amount. She’s already been struggling to eat on the $5 a day that a single person on food stamps can spend on food.

This week, we’ve been looking at the working poor – people who have jobs that offer so few hours or pay so little they can’t make ends meet. Along with chronicling Washington’s personal experience of living on food stamps, we’ve interviewed several workers and dug into census data to find the numbers of working poor in Chicago.

The dire economic situation already facing so many food stamps recipients could mean “a real, tremendous outcry when [the benefit change] hits,” said Dan Lesser, director of economic justice at the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. It’s also likely to come as a surprise to many SNAP recipients, as the state isn’t required to notify them of the planned cuts, said Lesser.

Despite concerns that receiving less aid will only make people hungrier, Lesser doesn’t expect Congress will fill in the gap created by the expiration of Recovery Act funds. On the contrary, the U.S. House is expected to debate a bill this week proposing billions  in cuts to SNAP.

The Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act, passed by the House Agriculture Committee, puts forward $39 billion in cuts to SNAP assistance over three years, particularly by reducing waivers for childless adults and putting up barriers for SNAP eligibility. It was authored by House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma, who has in the past fought hard to keep the Food and Drug Administration from gaining any extra power to regulate food safety.

Lucas’ bill suggests altogether eliminating “categorical eligibility” rules. Currently, households that receive SNAP benefits are eligible for other low-income supports, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or school lunches for low-income children. But if “categorical eligibility” is eliminated, any other assistance a family receives would be counted toward their assets, and could make them ineligible for SNAP benefits. This would push off 1.8 million people from the program, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But it doesn’t stop there. The bill also requires any adults receiving SNAP to be working or in a job-training program for 20 hours a week, and limits benefits for adults without children.

Diane Doherty, executive director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition, had difficulty containing her indignation at the proposals when the Reporter spoke to her over the phone. “It makes me think that [the authors] live in another country,” she said. “It’s really going to hit poor, unemployed people who want to work but can’t. And job training? We don’t have a food stamp employment program.”

Lesser said an additional concern is that under the legislation, there is an incentive for states to cut people off SNAP benefits. If someone isn’t eligible for SNAP, the state still gets to keep a portion of the block grant allocation for food aid, she said.

Whether its federal stimulus money expiring, or legislation full of cuts, it looks like people depending on food aid will be getting less. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that if Congress’ proposed cuts go through, the U.S. poverty rate could increase by more than half a percent.

“I’ve never worried about it [food stamp cuts] in the way I’m worried now,” Doherty said. “The impact on people who are working not to have proper nutrition is a serious one. These guys [legislators] are not thinking about the future.”

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