Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Food stamp benefits set to drop this week

By Jamey Dunn

Starting this Friday, Illinois residents who receive federal food assistance benefits will take a hit to their grocery budgets.

Benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were temporarily increased under the federal stimulus package in 2009. That increase of almost 14 percent is set to roll back on November 1. Nationally, the reduction will be about $5 billion in the 2014 fiscal year. In Illinois, it will mean a $220 million cut. According to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the reduction will affect more than 2 million Illinois residents. A family of four receiving the maximum benefit will see a cut of $36 a month, leaving them with a $632 monthly benefit. This equals about $1.75 per person for each meal. Overall, SNAP benefits average out to be less than $1.50 per person for a meal. (For a full list of the reductions, see the Illinois Department of Human Services website. All the examples listed there are the maximum benefits.)

“SNAP has never experienced a reduction in benefits that impacts all participants, including 22 million children nationwide. Given the fact that benefits are already inadequate for many families, these cuts will be particularly painful,” said Gaylord Gieseke, president of Voices for Illinois Children. Recipients will see the reduction when benefits begin to go out on Friday.

When originally passed, the increase would have remained in place until food price inflation surpassed it. But food prices did not increase as expected. In 2010, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed a law to sunset the increase and gave the money to states in the form of additional federal education funding and an increased Medicaid match.

Advocates for the poor argue that SNAP benefits are too meager and say they fear further cuts being considered in Congress. “SNAP has been a powerful tool in helping to keep families out of poverty,” Gieseke said. “The majority of SNAP recipients who are able to work do so. Cuts to SNAP will result in more children lacking access to nutritious food that is critical for their healthy development. Now is not the time to further reduce this already modest assistance to these struggling families.”

SNAP is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the funding is part of the federal farm bill. Lawmakers have been unable to reach a compromise on the farm bill since the previous version expired more than a year ago. Congress approved an extension of the previous version, but the two chambers, each controlled by a different party, have yet to agree on SNAP. The Republican-controlled U.S. House voted to cut the program by almost $40 million over the next 10 years. In the Senate, where Democrats have the majority, the approved plan would cut SNAP by $4.5 billion over the next decade. A bipartisan conference committee made up of members of both chambers is tasked with finding a compromise. The group’s panel’s meeting is scheduled for tomorrow.

A group of congressional Democrats, including Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, sent a letter to the committee urging it not to tighten eligibility for the program. The letter argues that changing eligibility standards could have a ripple effect because some other public aid programs use SNAP eligibility to determine if someone qualifies for their services. “While we support efforts to improve the integrity of the SNAP program, we encourage conferees to reject all SNAP eligibility changes designed to erect new barriers to participation, preventing millions of seniors, children and families from accessing food assistance,” the letter states. “The eligibility changes also will mean an additional 280,000 children would lose free school meals because children in SNAP households are automatically eligible for school meals. Changes would also increase administrative costs by requiring states to re-determine eligibility for SNAP, even if a household was deemed eligible for other state and/or federal assistance programs.”

But proponents of deeper cuts point to the number of enrollees — in Illinois, about 16 percent of residents — and say the program’s growth makes it impossible to maintain. SNAP currently costs about $80 billion annually. “Just as I believe we must take care of fellow Americans who truly need the help, I also believe that we must address fraud and abuse in the SNAP program and provide opportunities and encouragement to put people back to work,” Illinois U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Republican from Taylorville, told the Associated Press. “When unemployment declines, the number of food stamp recipients still increases under our current system. This is simply unsustainable.”

Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, said the disagreement over SNAP ties into the larger debate at the federal level over the growth of entitlement programs and government debt. He said as the country has seen a downturn, government has grown, and businesses, workers and the private sector have picked up the tab. “We need to reverse it,” he said. Dabrowski said there should be a safety net for those who truly need it, but that the best thing the government can do is limit spending and encourage businesses to grow. “Illinois is becoming better at putting people on food stamps than it is at creating jobs.”

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