I’m assuming the answer is yes. Which might be why the cut in food stamp benefits in the US – between $11 per month for a one-headed household and $36 for a four-headed one – that came into effect on November 1st may not have been a big-ticket news item, and went unquestioned by policy-makers. But for those on the ground, $10 can actually make a tremendous difference, as the New York Times reports.
‘But wait’, you will say. ‘I thought the battle over food stamp cuts was still being fought?’ To a certain extent, that is true, but these cuts come from the expiry of a stimulus package that had originally increased the monthly budget of recipients by up to 13.5% in 2009. So it could be argued that SNAP benefits are going ‘back to normal’ – if normality means a still floundering economic situation for the poorest, and an increasingly precarious safety net to fall back on. Some advocates argue that this is the worst time to get rid of the stimulus, and that there would have been alternative policy routes to consider extending its benefits. “Low-income people are usually some of the first people to be hit by the recession and some of the last people to feel the rebound,” according to Kerry Birnbach of the California Food Policy Advocates. “So there are a lot of people who are still struggling out there. There’s a lot of research saying that the SNAP benefit is inadequate as is.”
The battle over the big cuts that we were discussing previously are thus still on the table and being bitterly fought over.
In the meantime, this scenario gives us a look into the future on the consequences of slashing poor households’ food budgets, if only by a little, and makes you wonder how callous politicians have to be to advocate for an additional tenfold cut in the program’s funds.
What makes this cut special is that it comes directly out of recipients’ pockets, thus targeting those that were already identified as vulnerable and needy of assistance. The results? Difficult choices, as the New York Times reports. What is the cheapest breakfast that will fill you up most? (Grits and margarine are a contender here.) Can we afford broccoli or meat this month? (No.) Can I live without coffee and sugar so that my daughter doesn’t feel hungry? (Yes.)
Most of these choices are unimaginable for middle-class families and people even higher up on the social ladder; maybe that is why these political choices are made despite their clear consequences. Yet, “people at this level of need are already going hungry,” according to Sister Noreen Buttimer, a nun who working at a soup kitchen interviewed for the Times. “It’s frightening how we think about the poor.”
Furthermore, having just finished learning about economic linkages and multiplier effects, it was very interesting to me to see them pop up in this context as well. See, the $10 in the hands of welfare recipients don’t just disappear from the economy – they are spent on food in grocery stores, which helps particularly small stores to turn a profit and pay their employees, which in the turn buy goods from the local economy… And so on and on in a (theoretically) virtuous cycle (theoretically because it really depends on the money staying in the local economy and not siphoned off by multinationals but that is a side note). The other way round, the cycle can get quite vicious, however. Some stores in poor neighborhoods have 75 to 80% of their customers that use food stamps, and they say that even after a week it is clear they will feel the repercussions of the cut – sales have already dropped by 10% for a food market in the Bronx. If that pattern continues, they might have to let go of employees.
Overall, I keep coming back to one question – in the gargantuan budget of the United States, which clearly needs to be reigned in, are there no other expenditures that could be cut that don’t affect the hunger levels of its citizens? For being the most wealthy nation on the planet, I think it’s abominable that 14.5% of households (roughly one in six Americans) face hunger and food insecurity.