Over the past few months, the raging fight over food stamps in Congress has been accompanied by a sense of hope that the House Republicans wouldn't get their way. While they've been trying to cut the SNAP program as much as possible, the fact that the cuts hadn't yet been given the official go-ahead gave us the feeling that, perhaps, the food stamp program would get through this fight unscathed. But that hope may have been misplaced.
The entire time this debate has been taking place, there's been a grand piano hanging by a thread over the entire proceedings. And this Friday, that thread snaps.
There's a big automatic cut to the program scheduled for Nov. 1, as a temporary boost from the 2009 stimulus bill expires. That change will trim about $5 billion from federal spending over the coming year.
It's tough to wrap one's head around the massive amount of money associated with U.S. government expenditures, so it's important to find some way to bring the figures back down to Earth. Which is what I'm going to try to do here today with the assistance of our good friend Math.
Currently, the SNAP program costs $80 billion per year. That money's spread out across 47 million people. (Note: It's not as if all 47 million get the same amount, but for this exercise, let's say they do.) That's roughly $1.7 billion allocated to every million people on the SNAP program, meaning each person gets just about -- hold on a second, carrying the one here -- $1700 a year in food-related assistance. You can break down the monthly/weekly/daily allowance that amount generates on your own if you'd like. (And I do recommend doing so, just to see how little actual assistance is being doled out per person on the program.) But that amount leaves us with this question: How many of those $1700 chunks fit into the $5 billion that's being cut?
The answer: 2,941,176. Or, for those whose eyes glaze over when there are integers afoot, nearly three million people. That's how many people will have to be entirely removed from the SNAP program for the rest of the recipients to continue to get that measly $1700 a year in assistance.
Once again: Nearly three million people.
Now, this exercise is obviously not exactly how the cuts will be implemented. Instead of cutting a large number of people entirely, they're going to cut a bit from everyone's sum across the board. For a more accurate picture of how the cuts will affect households of various sizes, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has the information in an easy-to-read chart, along with a summary that includes this harrowing passage:
The November 1 benefit cut will be substantial. A household of three, such as a mother with two children, will lose $29 a month -- a total of $319 for November 2013 through September 2014, the remaining 11 months of fiscal year 2014... The cut is equivalent to about 16 meals a month for a family of three based on the cost of the U.S. Agriculture Department's "Thrifty Food Plan."
And it's important to keep in mind the scariest part of this news: The cuts coming on Friday are only the beginning. If the GOP-led House gets their way, things are going to get much, much, much worse for those relying on government assistance. That's more frightening than any costume you're going to see this week.
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