Anti-hunger advocates in Illinois are warning the proposed cuts in the U.S. Farm Bill will cause great devastation to the more than 2 million individuals and families in the state who depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Progress Illinois takes a look closer at the issue.
The 2013 farm bills that passed out of the U.S. Senate and House Agriculture Committees earlier this month look to slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by billions of dollars over the next 10 years.
Anti-hunger advocates in Illinois are warning that the proposed cuts will cause great devastation to the more than 2 million individuals and families in the state who depend on SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
“I’ve been in a mode of outrage ever since this came out of the House,” said Sessy Nyman, vice president of policy and strategic partnerships at Illinois Action for Children. “The House proposal is so offensive to me that I can barely talk about it without screaming and crying at the same time.”
The House Agriculture Committee approved a proposal to cut SNAP, which provides nutrition assistance to millions of low-income individuals and families, by $20.5 billion over a 10-year period.
The Senate Agriculture Committee also approved a plan to cut the program by $4.1 billion over 10 years.
An amendment to the Senate’s version of the farm bill by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), which aimed to prevent the SNAP cuts via reducing subsidies for crop insurance companies, failed in committee.
One amendment to the Senate’s farm bill that was approved unanimously in committee, however, looks to prevent ex-convicts of certain violent crimes from receiving SNAP benefits for life.
But as Robert Greenstein, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, pointed out in a statement on the center’s website, “a young man who was convicted of a single crime at age 19 who then reforms and is now elderly, poor, and raising grandchildren would be thrown off SNAP, and his grandchildren’s benefits would be cut.”
He also added the amendment, which still has a chance of being modified while on the floor, will likely have “strongly racially discriminatory effects.”
“Poor, elderly African-Americans convicted of a single crime decades ago by segregated southern juries would be among those hit,” he wrote.
On top of the proposed cuts in the farm bills, those receiving SNAP will feel a squeeze beginning November 1, 2013 when benefit increases under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act will end.
Starting in November, a family of four can expect to see about a $25 reduction in monthly SNAP benefits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
It is already difficult to survive on SNAP, as the average benefit provides about $1.41 per person per meal, said Diane Doherty, executive director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition.
It is hard to make a meal with that money, she explained. Just a can of tuna fish, for example, can cost more than a dollar, Doherty said.
“So to actually have a healthy diet based on $1.41 per person per meal is very, very hard, and then if you were to cut that ... [by] $25 over a month period of time, that’s a huge cut in your ability to provide meals to your family,” she said.
Beverly Henry, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University’s College of Health and Human Sciences, said when SNAP recipients go to the grocery store, they are typically spending their own dollars on top of SNAP benefits.
SNAP is aimed to increase purchasing power, Henry explained.
“It’s certainly not money that is going to be free flowing and enable people to go on vacation or something,” she said. “And it’s certainly not enough money to say, ‘I could go do fine dining once a week, because I’m on SNAP benefits.’”
Most of the House bill’s nearly $21 billion in cuts to the program would come from doing away with the “categorical eligibility” option for states.
The option, which Illinois has adopted, lets states provide food assistance to households with gross incomes or assets slightly above federal SNAP limits. But in general, disposable income has to be under the poverty line.
As a result of this option, thousands of more people in Illinois have been able to access the SNAP program, Doherty said.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, eliminating the categorical eligibility option would result in nearly 2 million people being pushed off SNAP. The Congressional Budget Office reports that free school meals connected to SNAP will be lost for 210,000 children in low-income families if they are kicked off of the program.
“Really? What are we doing,” Nyman responded. “It’s a generation that we’re just simply writing off.”
She said research shows that when kids show up to school hungry, they cannot focus and learn.
“The biggest bang for our buck is if we can just make sure these kids are not hungry every day they show up to learn,” Nyman said. “We’ll make huge, huge grounds in terms of educational outcomes for our children.”
The farm bill is a wide-ranging piece of legislation involving funding for the majority of federal food and farm policies, SNAP being included. But cuts to programs in the farm bill that impact children’s health have long-term implications, Henry stressed.
“Every time you take away money and chose to spend your money on supporting Christmas tree growers, not that I have anything against Christmas tree growers, but it really starts to hit the people who are struggling and trying to make the best choices for their family,” she said.
Food Insecurity In Illinois
In April, about 90 percent of Illinoisans on SNAP were in households with children, senior citizens or people with disabilities, Doherty pointed out.
And there are more than 807,000 people in Cook County who are food insecure, which breaks down to be about 1 in 6 people, said Jim Conwell, spokesman for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Hunger disproportionally impacts children, he added.
About 1 in 5 children in Illinois are food insecure, Doherty said. And for many of those children, SNAP is the only reason they do not go totally hungry, she added.
Conwell said federal nutrition safety net programs are extremely vital at a time when the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and many other food banks across the country, are continuing to respond to heightened demands for food assistance as a result of the recession.
The Greater Chicago Food Depository is serving about 77 percent more people than it did five years ago, Conwell added.
The House bill includes SNAP cuts, but at the same time ramps up funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which funds food banks, by $217 million.
That fact is puzzling to Doherty.
“That’s pretty ridiculous, because not every county [or] area has a pantry,” she said.
Also, food pantries may only be open a few days a week, and hours of operation are not always accessible for people, Doherty noted.
It is a “convoluted priority” to say, “We’ll give the funding to charity. We’ll give the funding to food banks, but it’s not to give people food directly, what is what the food stamp program does,” she added.
SNAP benefits give people the wherewithal to be economical. For example, SNAP recipients can shop in places where they can buy in bulk, Doherty explained.
“It boggles the mind that the U.S. Congress would be voting for those kinds of cuts to one of the most important programs that we have in the safety net for people,” Doherty said.
Image: AP/Gregory Bull