Senate Chops Last Lifeline For Struggling Families

Food stamps are all that's left for many, but they too are sacrificed to the deficit demons.

By Seth Freed Wessler Aug 06, 2010

Refrigerators and stomachs will be emptier soon. Yesterday, the Senate slashed food assistance for families. When the cuts go into effect, millions will see a reduction in benefits. It’s the latest and a particularly heartless move in the GOP’s assault on poor and unemployed people in the name of cutting the budget deficit.

To offset desperately needed funding for education jobs and Medicaid, the Senate voted to pull $12 million dollars from the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

As of May over 40 million families were receiving food assistance in the United States. That’s more than ever before in history. Few economists expect unemployment will fall to livable levels anytime soon. But even if joblessness falls significantly, millions will still rely on food assistance. 

As I reported for ColorLines earlier this year, this is in large part because the cash assistance program known as TANF (or, Temporary Aid to Needy Families) has atrophied so much since welfare reform in 1996 that it’s very hard to get help. Without access to welfare, with unemployment at about 30 percent for the lowest income people and with unemployment benefits running out for a growing number of the jobless, food stamps are often the last stop before there’s nothing.

Last year Congress raised SNAP benefits by about 14 percent as part of a stimulus effort to deal with growing need and unacceptably low food stamp benefit levels. At the time the intent was to hold the increase in place until inflation caught up. But the deficit insanity has changed this, and yesterday’s vote will now hold the increase before inflation catches up. As of 2014, millions will be left with less to keep their families fed.

"It is the first real cut to SNAP benefits for low income families," said Ellen Teller, director of governmental affairs at the Food Research and Action Center.

"The bottom line: It means that rather than gradually phasing out food stamp increases with inflation, families will see a benefit cliff. A family of four will see their food stamps cut by $59."

Some families who are left with no job or cash assistance have been forced to turn their food assistance into cash, trading their SNAP benefits for dollars to pay for things like kid’s shoes. When the food stamp cuts go into effect, even this last resort grey-market practice will be harder.

While we’re shooting up the life raft for families, the cuts are also a blow to economic recovery efforts. Economists generally argue that food assistance provides a boon to the economy by putting money into consumer hands. A Moody’s economist finds that each federal dollar spent on food stamps creates $1.73 in market demand.

Meanwhile, the Bush tax cuts remain pretty much intact. Priorities anyone?