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Shawn Vestal: Recession is poor time to cut aid to neediest

Sat., Sept. 21, 2013

Ten bucks a month.

That’s roughly the size of cut that each person who receives government food aid is facing in five weeks. Your response to this cut may vary, and may reveal something about your understanding of what it’s like to need food stamps.

It may seem small, this 10 bucks a month. For some of us, it wouldn’t cover condiments. But if you’ve ever struggled to put food on the table – ever walked that thin line where the grocery check lives dangerously close to the checkbook balance – then you might recognize that 10 bucks can be significant.

If you’ve ever relied upon food stamps yourself, you realize that 10 bucks is more than significant. According to the federal guidelines used to determine benefits, it covers more than five meals.

That would be one way to look at it.

Another way is this: Ten bucks a month is nowhere near enough to be taking away from hungry people right now.

This is the view of House Republicans, who are seeking to cut nearly $40 billion from the food-stamp program over 10 years, booting 3.8 million people off assistance next year, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The House proposal – like most everything in the House – is notable more for its worldview than any relationship to legislative reality, from which it is bitterly divorced. In this case, having canvassed the nation for the source of our problems, the House leadership, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, has identified the feeding of poor people as the biggie. They have identified this insidious feeding of poor people as one of those destructive values from which we need to take America back.

About 47 million Americans receive assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Eighty-three percent of SNAP benefits go to households with children, the disabled or the elderly. The average monthly benefit is $133. The number of people who receive help has indeed – and one might even say unsurprisingly – gone up dramatically in the last few years, and it is expected to go back down as the economy improves, according to CBO estimates.

Even so, participation in the program is expected to remain above historical averages for years, in the CBO projections. Cost-cutting is likely inevitable as we try to balance our budget deficit against our empathy deficit.

In 2009, the economic stimulus package raised SNAP benefits by 13.6 percent. It remains unclear how a provision helping nonbankers managed to slip through. That act put a sunset on the increase, and that sun is now setting.

Benefits vary by income and household, but a family of four receiving the maximum benefit will go from $668 a month to $632 on Nov. 1, a drop of $36. A family of three will see its benefits drop from $526 to $497 – down by $29. The maximum benefit for a single person drops from $200 to $189.

Many will see these amounts as noncatastrophic, including me. But it’s very, very easy for me – someone who spends much more than $10 on a single meal frequently and without much anxiety – to underestimate them.

“It makes a big difference for low-income households near the poverty level,” said John Camp, administrator for food assistance programs for Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services. “It’s definitely something they feel.”

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in a position paper on the cuts, concluded, “This cut will be the equivalent of taking away 21 meals per month for a family of four, or 16 meals for a family of three.”

These aren’t those lobster and steak meals that the haters love to talk about. You’ve heard the abundant, apocryphal tales about people paying for their lobster with food stamps, surely. Happens all the time, supposedly. Why would anyone work when Obama buys them lobster for dinner?

In reality, SNAP benefits are based on something Agriculture Department researchers created called the “Thrifty Food Plan,” with meal costs set between $1.70 and $2. After the cut, the average SNAP benefit per meal will be $1.40.

Here’s a different kind of tale. Karen Jeltsch, a 62-year-old Spokane woman, worked for three decades as a nurse practitioner, until she found herself unable to land a job in 2007. She delivered flowers for a friend, and her joblessness took a while to take its toll.

She was eating peanut butter and ramen noodles. She was taking turns deciding, “What’ll I have shut off this month?” She was losing weight.

“I did not want to go on food stamps,” she said. “I was ashamed when I went in and applied for those food stamps.”

But the help she received was doubly beneficial. It was nutritious, and it helped her overcome the oppressive impact that her financial problems were having in her life.

“I did not feel resourceful,” she said. “I was so wrapped up in the shame of not being able to provide for myself.”

Jeltsch received food stamp help for a year. She was able to buy some meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, some nutritious variety. She got resourceful and got off food stamps.

“Food is important,” she said. “Dignity is also very important. … (Food stamps) were able to offer me a return to dignity.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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