by Casey Jaywork | Editor in Chief
Since November, automatic cuts in federal food assistance have forced poor Americans to stretch their money further – and more cuts are on the horizon.
The recent cuts were made to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as Food Stamps. SNAP expanded under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) in 2009 and, without an extension by Congress, automatically contracted to pre-ARRA levels on November 1st. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), families receiving food assistance lost as much as $36 in food aid per month, or $396 per year. Based on data from the CBPP, a person living on food aid can now afford $1.70 to $2 per meal, though the executive director of the NYC Coalition Against Hunger puts that number at $1.40.
According to the WA Department of Social and Health Services, 1.4 million Washingtonians were receiving food aid last year. TheWashington Postreports that the number of Americans receiving food aid has nearly doubled from fewer than 30 million before the Great Recession in 2008 to 47 million today. Not coincidentally, 47 million is also the number of Americans currently living in poverty.
November 1st’s automatic cuts are just the beginning. The Post’s Jackie Kucinich explains that lawmakers are currently arguing over changes in the Farm Bill, from which SNAP draws its funding. Despite its name, the Farm Bill – which began as a subsidy to farmers during the Great Depression of the 1930s – spends about 80% of its funding on SNAP, due to a political marriage between urban and rural interests in the 1970s. The Democrat-controlled Senate has passed a bill to cut SNAP spending by $400 million per year, while the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted in September to cut SNAP by ten times as much–$40 billion over the next decade–and to increase enrollment requirements such as limiting benefits to unemployed adults and allowing states to mandate drug testing. This summer, the House passed a symbolic version of the Farm Bill which cut SNAP entirely while retaining subsidies to farmers.
Cuts to SNAP impact not only the quantity but also the quality of food available to program recipients. The Post reports that families living on a dollar-and-a-half per meal tend to buy foods that are processed and “heavy in preservatives, fats, salt and refined sugar.” A 2004 review of scientific literature on the relationship between poverty and nutrition found that “energy-dense foods composed of refined grains, added sugars, or fats may represent the lowest-cost option to the consumer.” In other words, poor people tend to buy high-energy, low-nutrition foods, which satisfy short-term nutritional needs while leading to long-term health problems.
To see whether this trend held locally, this reporter checked the cost of different qualities of peanut butter at three local groceries. At Madrona Grocery Outlet, a one-pound jar of peanut butter made with sugar and added oils cost $2.29. At Capitol Hill Trader Joe’s, a one-pound jar of peanut butter made with only peanuts cost $2.79. At the Central Co-op, a pound of freshly-ground peanut butter cost $5.29. In general, it appears that in Seattle, healthier foods cost more.
The 2004 review also found that “the highest rates of obesity occur among population groups with the highest poverty rates and the least education.” All this leads to further effects on health costs: according to a 2012 study, in 2005, the US spent $190 billion on obesity-related illnesses.
Cuts to funding are not the only problems facing SNAP recipients. The process of applying for food aid is loaded with intrusive paperwork, long lines, and bureaucracy. In an interview with the Post’s Wonkblog, NYC Coalition Against Hunger executive director Joel Berg attributes the swath of red-tape surrounding SNAP benefits to bipartisan paternalism, in which Democrats think poor people are stupid and Republicans think they’re lazy. “Some of this is that the left still wants poor people to come into an office and have their case managed,” Berg said. “The right wants it because they want stigma. The left doesn’t want stigma, but they have the patronizing attitude that low-income people won’t understand any of this unless someone sits down and talks them through it.”
Policy blogger David Phillippe (with whom this reporter served in Americorps) agrees with Berg’s analysis. “One side seems to use this as an opportunity to represent the belief that…market incomes are an inherent ranking of character,” Phillippe said in interview. “Or at least, on the Left side, market incomes being an inherent ranking of intelligence.”