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The Harsh Reality of Food Stamp Cuts

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Photo:pasa/Flickr/Creative Commons License 


While the biggest scares of the autumn season are generally reserved for the final day of October, this year's true fright fest took place at 12:01 a.m. on November 1 when $5 billion in food stamps were cut across the country, affecting more than 47 million Americans. And when you're dealing with that massive a hit to people's finances, you better believe the move will be examined from every possible angle.

The results are not pretty.

(Before we begin: Technically, the cuts that took place on November 1 weren't officially "cuts" so much as the expiration of a temporary addition to benefits that were part of the economic stimulus package from four years ago. But, try making that distinction to families already surviving on scant resources who now have to make do with even less. They're cuts to a family's current food budget, so they're "cuts.")

PBS reported on the SNAP cuts with their signature, even-handed take on who this move is affecting most, paying particular attention to how lives have changed from October 31 to November 1:

JON WEST, Atlanta Community Food Bank: Their food stamps only last them about three weeks out of a month, so with a cut of $36 a month that they're going to be experiencing now, they're going to be lucky to make that stretch two, two-and-a-half weeks.

The L.A. Times took a look at what these cuts mean to the retail side of the economy:

Grocery stores and other food retailers have struggled in recent years as consumers battered by high unemployment and shrinking wages switched from upscale products to discounted bulk goods and generic brands.

And USA Today focused on how the cuts affect the already extremely taxed realm of food banks, who will now have more needy mouths to feed with the same amount of donations:

[A]gencies will do one of two things when their food supply runs low: They will serve a set number of people and cut off the line when they run out of food baskets or they will put less food in the baskets so they can make more of them.

Fox News put their own specific little spin on the story, of course, by steering the conversation away from heart-breaking tales of distraught Americans and into the realm of sordid scammers greedily gaming the system:

A recent inspector general audit suggests a full-blown crackdown on [food stamp] fraud could save $222 million a year.

Which, certainly, is a conversation to have. Food stamp fraud costs the system money, and therefore needs to be guarded against. But to focus on the few bad eggs out there versus the millions of hard workers who need assistance to get by shows a lack of understanding of how these cuts hurt. This story out of North Carolina, where a single mother of four had her benefits cut from $500 a month to a mere $16, might be a dramatic outlier, but the sentiment is more in line with what most SNAP recipients are currently going through:

She goes to Food Lion early every morning to buy meat that's on sale. The kids get a specific number of chicken nuggets, and the Kool-Aid gets a little more water in the mix. Even the cereal is specifically divvied up, only half a bowl for each child.

And lest you believe that's simply some anomaly happening in a podunk town across the country, here's a look at how the cuts will affect your fellow Californians:

Project SNAP Recipients in Fiscal Year 2014: 4,168,000
Percent of Population: 11%
Total SNAP Benefit Cut to State: $457,000,000
Children Affected: 2,285,000
Elderly or People with Disabilities Affected: 154,000

But the most frightening part of this news is that this will most certainly not be the last round of cuts. House Republicans have been beating their drum for the past year, trying to push through even more massive food stamp cuts than this. Their excuse as to why this is necessary is an old one, full of phrases like "fiscal responsibility" and "economic stability." The November 1 cuts, then, are a legitimate test run for that philosophy. If people get through the tough times unscathed and the economy continues to recover, maybe they have a point. But, as the L.A. Times in an op-ed piece points out, recovery efforts tend to stall when you take away a person's ability to eat:

The 5.5% reduction in benefits will pull about $5 billion in federal spending out of the economy over the coming 10 months -- $457 million in California alone. Those were borrowed dollars, so the savings bring Washington one small step closer to fiscal sustainability. Yet the federal government won't make it all the way there without faster economic growth, and putting less food on poor Americans' tables won't help.

In other words: These cuts are lose-lose all around.

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