Making sense of $8.7 billion in cuts to food stamps

This graphic represents the growth in food stamp program participation from 2007 to 2011. Graphic created by USDA Economic Research Service.

This graphic represents the growth in food stamp program participation from 2007 to 2011. Graphic created by USDA Economic Research Service.

By Meghan Eldridge 

COLUMBIA, Mo. — With the signing of the Agriculture Act of 2014, better known as the Farm Bill, on Feb. 7, a wave of changes hit the farming sector and people affected by changes in the national food system. In particular, the bill made significant cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps. Program cuts will amount to about $8.7 billion over the next ten years, about a one percent cut annually.

With the various changes included in the bill’s over 950 pages, the meaning of $8.7 billion in cuts to food stamps can get lost in translation.

In Missouri, an average 16.7 percent of households, approximately 1.3 million people, were considered food insecure annually between 2010 and 2012, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report on national food security. To be classified as food insecure means at least one member of a household’s intake of food is disrupted throughout the month because of a lack of resources to purchase sufficient food.

This graphic illustrates 2010 levels of food uncertainty by percent of households in Missouri. Graphic created by Missouri Hunger Atlas 2013.

This graphic illustrates 2010 levels of food uncertainty by percent of households in Missouri. Graphic created by Missouri Hunger Atlas 2013.

Total federal spending on the SNAP program was $76 billion in 2013. An individual in Missouri received an average of $128.04 in monthly benefits in 2013, compared to the national average of $133.07, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Monthly benefits broke down to less than $1.50 per meal in 2013, an amount that is typically not enough to sustain a healthy diet, according to a report by the Department of Agriculture.

The Missouri Department of Social Services, responsible for coordinating public assistance programs for families in the state, can’t speculate on the potential dollar impact of cuts made in the Farm Bill for Missouri food stamp recipients, said Rebecca Woelfel, director of communications for the department, in an email.

Here are some of the most significant changes, according to the Farm Bill:

  • A previous program called the “heat and eat” policy will end in 16 states, including populous states like California and New York. The policy previously gave recipients of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program a bump in SNAP benefits each month, which helped some low-income families pay to both heat their homes and eat. This change means about 850,000 SNAP recipients will see their benefits decrease by $90 each month.
  • People convicted of certain crimes, including murder, rape and certain crimes against children and people not complying with the terms of their sentence are not eligible to receive SNAP benefits.
  • People who have won the lottery, illegal immigrants and most affluent college students are not eligible to receive food stamp benefits.
  • Retail stores will have to meet new requirements to be eligible to accept SNAP benefits. Now a store must stock products from three of the four following categories: dairy; meat, poultry and fish; fruits and vegetables; breads and cereals. This change is intended to increase access to nutritious food for people using food stamps.
  • The USDA will no longer advertise or promote enrollment in the SNAP program through television, radio or billboard advertisements.

Despite $8.7 billion in cuts to the SNAP program, food security advocates are relieved the changes weren’t more severe.

“The good news from my perspective is that last fall it looked like the House wanted to cut $30 billion from SNAP benefits, but we avoided that,” said Sandy Rikoon, director of the MU Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security. “Most of the people I know involved in the fight against hunger are pretty happy with how this turned out. It could have been a lot worse in terms of the number of people affected.”

For the 47 million Americans relying on SNAP benefits, financial cuts to the program will likely have real consequences from week to week as families try to buy food with less assistance, Rikoon said.

Rikoon sees the end of the “heat and eat” policy as a double-edged sword. The 850,000 people most affected by the loophole ending are probably the ones who need food stamps the most, he said.

“$90 is going to be significant,” Rikoon said. “For an average family of four in Missouri, that probably adds up to a week’s worth of groceries. How people are going to make up for that will be a question.”

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