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Under growing pressure to prevent a pair of domestic spending bills from increasing the national budget deficit, Congress plans to offset new spending with unprecedented cuts to future food stamp funding. The cuts to food stamp funding would finance a bill to help fund public sectors jobs at the state level and a proposed child nutrition measure, which has been approved by the Senate and is making its way through the House.
These two measures are expected to save $14.1 billion over ten years, but the tradeoff for families on food stamps would mean phasing out stimulus bill provisions that increased families' monthly food stamps during the recession. According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), low-income households will, for the first time, see their benefits fall from one month to the next.
A family of four will receive $59 fewer a month starting November 2013.
Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) and Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), along with 106 other Democrats, signed a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California), calling the cut in stimulus food stamp funding to finance the state aid bill "one of the more egregious cases of robbing Peter to pay Paul."
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act boosted monthly food stamps benefits (known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) by 13.6 percent in April 2009 as part of the federal economic stimulus package.
As unemployment and economic uncertainty continued, participation in SNAP rose from 34.4 million people to 40.8 million in May 2010 relying on food stamps for nutrition - one in every seven Americans. On average, each of these individuals received $101 a month in SNAP benefits, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Reports show that, contrary to popular belief, food stamps increase the rate of economic recovery. According to the industry research firm Moody's Economy.com, food stamps are the fastest way to infuse money into the economy.
Every dollar spent on the program generates $1.73, said Moody's economist Mark Zadi. "If someone who is literally living paycheck to paycheck gets an extra dollar, it's very likely that they will spend that dollar immediately on whatever they need - groceries, to pay the telephone bill, to pay the electric bill."
Originally, the recession increase in SNAP benefits was to be phased out gradually by allowing inflation to catch up with increased payments, as the amounts are adjusted for inflation annually, but cuts are expected to cause a marked decrease in benefits from one month to the next, known as a "cliff."
Fears of deficit spending in Congress have forced Democrats to barter spending cuts to pass any comprehensive job or recovery bills, decisions which Joel Berg from the New York Coalition Against Hunger called accepting "that you either cut off the left arm or you cut off the right arm."
The first cut, for the state aid bill, moved up the SNAP benefits' expiration date to April 2014, and will save $1.26 billion.
The second cut comes from the Child Nutrition Act already passed by the Senate, which would increase school funding for lunch, afterschool and breakfast food programs, and make it easier for students to enroll in the free-lunch program.
The Senate proposes to offset the cost of the $4.5 billion child nutrition reauthorization measure by moving SNAP funding cuts up to 2013 - which is expected to save $2.2 billion.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill will provide 21 million afterschool meals per year by 2014, but FRAC called the measure "a 'child nutrition' bill that will make children hungrier" by removing SNAP money from the stimulus bill.
Of the 40.8 million people that receive food stamps in the United States, nearly half are children. Even before the recession, almost 15 percent of families went without enough to eat, according to the Department of Agriculture.
At the beginning of 2010, an estimated six million people receiving food stamps had no other income, reported The New York Times, having lost unemployment insurance and cash assistance.
Whether the planned cuts are nothing more than an accounting trick to win "yes" votes from members of Congress worried about the deficit or a serious threat to families who depend on the money to feed their children remains to be seen.
A group of Democrats has vowed to keep cuts to SNAP funding from taking effect, including Sens. Sherrod Brown (D- Ohio), Ron Wyden (D -Oregon), Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) along with Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), Ellison and McGovern.
Ellison and McGovern are calling for an alternative funding source for the child nutrition bill and have floated a cut in farm subsidies, but have yet to make a formal proposal.
Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, said she believes the Democrats "are sincere in not wanting these cuts to go into effect, but I'm concerned that, when the time comes, they won't be able to find a way to put the money back."
When Rep. Jan Schakowsky, along with five other members of Congress including McGovern, was challenged to live on food stamps for a week in 2007, she quickly learned "how miserable it would be to live on food stamps for any length of time," a situation likely to be compounded by continued cuts to food stamp benefits.