We're spending nearly $1 trillion but cutting from those who most need help

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Making lunch: A 71-year-old Slingerlands food-stamp recipient places turkey from her daughter on bread she has thawed in her microwave. She keeps bread frozen to make it last longer and splurges once a month on a loaf of Heidelberg artisan bread, made with fresh ingredients.

The long-delayed farm bill — nearly 1,000 pages long — has finally passed both houses and been signed into law.  The federal government will spend $956 billion over the next decade with some worthwhile provisions meant to increase employment in rural areas, advance crop research, and protect farmers from disasters.

But, it makes an $8.6 billion reduction in food stamps — 850,000 families will lose about $90 a month. That’s half of the so-called savings from the bill, and a poor compromise.

According to numerous studies, the quickest way for the federal government to put money in a lagging economy is through the food stamp program; for every dollar spent, $1.73 is generated. In a ripple effect, the money spent on food pays the farmer that raises the food, pays those that haul the food to market, and pays those that sell the food. (The next most effective government program for stimulating the economy, at a return of $1.64 for each dollar, is unemployment benefits.)

The targeted farm-bill cuts come on top of the across-the-board cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, that went into effect Nov. 1.

That was the first time cuts were made across the board — ranging from $11 for a household of one to $36 for a household of four each month.

A 71-year-old woman from Slingerlands with a serious illness talked to us about what the recent cuts meant to her. She now gets just $74 per month, carefully planning her menus from advertising circulars to make the money stretch as far as she can, shopping weekly on her way home from church so as not to spend additional money on gas.

We admired her when she told us she felt no shame in accepting SNAP benefits. “I figured I’ve earned it,” she said. And so she has. She raised her four children single-handedly after her husband died young of a heart attack and she volunteered for 40 years with the Red Cross.

A productive member of American society, she has paid taxes all her life. She is entitled to the help she is now receiving.

We urge others who are eligible for the program — with an income below 130 percent of poverty — to apply. SNAP reached 75 percent of all eligible individuals in a typical month in 2010, the most recent numbers available, according to a 2013 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which works at the federal and state levels on fiscal policy and public programs that affect those with low and moderate incomes.

The center’s report, “SNAP Is Effective and Efficient,” finds this is a significant improvement from 2002 when the participation rate bottomed out at 54 percent of those who were eligible.

Graphs in the report, on data from 1985 to 2011, show parallel lines tracking the numbers of poor and near-poor along with the number of SNAP participants. In other words, when poverty rises, so does participation in SNAP, and, when poverty falls, likewise the number of recipients goes down. The number of people receiving SNAP increased in every state as a result of the recession — the parallel lines climb steadily from 2008 onward.

In recent years, the number of SNAP participants has grown both because more households are qualifying and because a larger share of eligible households is signing up.

“The record-setting SNAP participation levels are consistent with the extraordinarily deep and prolonged nature of the recession and the weak, lagging recovery,” says the report.

A stunning one in seven Americans now uses food stamps; that’s more than 40 million people. In New York State, the average monthly participation was 3.2 million people, using $5.62 billion in benefits, in 2013, up from 2.3 million, using $3.96 billion in benefits, in 2009, according to figures from the United States Department of Agriculture.

For the first time, working-age people now make up the majority of households that rely on food stamps, a change from a few years before when the elderly and children were the major recipients. And, the segment of food stamp recipients that has grown fastest since 1980 is workers with some college education as the middle class continues to erode.

“We’re a state where the gap between the rich and the poor is the biggest in the country,” said State Senator Neil Breslin at a legislative forum last week.

Cutbacks on food stamps will widen that gap.

While SNAP spending has risen considerably since the recession hit, the increases are expected to be temporary, said the policy report. Remember those parallel lines? As the economy improves and fewer people are poor, fewer will need food stamps.

One of the ways to stimulate the economy is, as we’ve pointed out, through food stamps.

Besides the economic ripple effect, there is also what we call the full-belly effect. Put simply: A person, particularly a child, is not productive or able to learn well and succeed later if she or he is hungry.

“We know if we provide good nutrition, and we provide good food to people in poverty, they’re more likely to get out of poverty,” said Lua Wilkinson, a nutritionist and ethnographer, in graduate studies at Cornell University

So what can we do other than lobby our legislators to restore cut funds for those who need it?

First, we can encourage people who are eligible to apply for the benefits they deserve. Help a neighbor who may not have a computer to fill out an application.

Second, we can contribute to local food pantries. They are heroically trying to fill the gap.

“Charities will not be able to step in and save the day,” Margaret Purvis, president of the Food Bank for New York City, wrote in a letter to the editor, published in The New York Times on Feb. 7, criticizing President Barack Obama for signing the farm bill.

“In New York City,” she wrote, “we’ve already seen what happens when SNAP benefits are cut: 85 percent of the food pantries and soup kitchens in Food Bank for New York City’s network saw more people on their lines after across-the-board cuts to SNAP went into effect this past November than they saw in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and roughly half reported food shortages in that first month alone.”

The situation is similar upstate. We have received a steady stream of press releases and requests from food pantries, stressing the need for contributions in the wake of the cuts. Purvis is right: We should not endorse the politics that perpetuate and deepen income inequality, and we should expect more from our leaders to keep Americans from going hungry.

Charities shouldn’t have to save the day, but, since they are in place, let’s support them as best we can.

Finally, we’d like to propose something that hearkens back to the origins of food stamps. From the depths of the Great Depression that saw farmers with unmarketable food surpluses and widespread unemployment that caused many to go hungry came the idea of linking the two.

Milo Perkins, the program’s first administrator, said, “We got a picture of a gorge with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other. We set out to find a way to build a bridge across that chasm.”

We know some businesses already donate their day-old bread and the like to charities that put the unused food to good use. But we wonder if this gap could be bridged locally in a broader way.

We don’t expect many to follow the trail blazed by Pauline Williman of Knox when she decided to use her family’s land to grow food for the needy. But we wonder, if following the mythic tradition of a farmer planting an outer row for travelers to use without asking, if farmers could commit some small portion of their crops to donate to local food pantries or food banks.

In the same way, as the rest of us who can afford to fill our shopping carts push through the lavishly laden supermarket aisles, could we, too, create an outer row, picking up a portion to donate each week?

If this became a habit — with local stores placing collection cartons in front the way many do at Christmas time — we might be able to make a year-round difference in the lives of our neighbors in need.

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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