As States Lose Food Stamp Money, Substitutes Are Scarce

A temporary boost in food stamp benefits expired on Nov. 1. Now hungry families must turn to food banks and other public programs for help.
by | November 6, 2013 AT 10:00 AM

Sandra Lanzieri, 55, is a single woman in Portland, Ore., living on food stamps along with her two adult sons. Up until November, her household received $506 per month in food stamp benefits through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. As with any household of three on SNAP, Lanzieri’s family just lost $29 in monthly benefits. That’s because a temporary boost of $5 billion in food stamp benefits, dating back to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, expired on Nov. 1.

“With the price of food going up, it’s less and less food that I get,” says Lanzieri, who used to work for a wireless phone company, which laid her off in 2010. She’s currently enrolled full-time at a local community college, hoping that an associate degree will help her find employment again. To get around, she relies on a relative for gas money. For the last five months, the food stamp benefits haven’t lasted the entire month, forcing her to turn to a food bank to feed her family.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 47.6 million Americans would be affected by the food stamps cut in November. The states with the largest size cuts were California and Texas, which lost $457 million and $411 million, respectively. Oregon lost $84 million in the cut.

Policy analysts on the right quibble with the semantics of calling this month’s reduction in benefits a cut. “The expiration of the temporary stimulus boost should not be dubbed a ‘cut,’” writes Rachel Sheffield, a blogger for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The more accurate description, according to Sheffield, would be “the benefit amount returning to the level it would have otherwise been if not for the 2009 stimulus.”

Call it a cut or the end of a temporary boost -- the impact is still a loss in purchasing power for low-income people across the country. To be eligible for food stamps, a household must meet three basic criteria. First, the gross monthly income must be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line -- meaning that a three-person family would qualify if it earned under about $25,400 a year. Second, the household must earn an income at the poverty line after tax deductions. Third, households cannot have valuable assets. According to a helpful primer by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, households without an elderly or disabled member must have assets of $2,000 or less, and households with an elderly or disabled member must have assets of $3,250 or less.

About 21 percent of Oregon residents are enrolled in SNAP, one of the highest participation rates of any state in the country. That means some 815,221 Oregonians saw a reduction in their food stamp benefits this month. The size of that reduction depends on the number of people in a household. For one person, the loss was $11 per month. For four people, the loss was $36 per month. The changes means that the average SNAP recipient would have $1.40 to spend per meal, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Some anti-hunger advocacy groups are recommending that SNAP recipients pursue other public assistance programs to pay for food, such as free or reduced school meals (breakfast and lunch) and the federal nutrition program known as Women, Infants and Children (WIC). A 2010 study by Mathematica Policy Research found that 42 percent of participants in the federal government’s four major nutrition assistance programs participate in only one program; only 6 percent participate in all four. Though the eligibility criteria for the three programs are not identical, nearly three-quarters of SNAP participants are in families with children, so the programs target overlapping populations.

Nonetheless, any potential overlap wouldn’t be enough to make up for the reduction in benefits across the food stamps population, says Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy for the Food Research and Action Center, a national anti-hunger organization. For example, WIC is too narrow in scope, Henchy says, to act as a substitute for food stamps: It strictly pertains to low-income pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children under age 5 who meet the federal definition of “nutritional risk” (think anemia or low birthweight). On the individual level, people should see if they qualify for these other types of public assistance, Henchy says, but “on a macro basis, if you tried to make (the food stamps program) whole on the national level, it wouldn’t work.”

Aside from other types of public assistance, the other place people may turn for help when their food stamps run out is the local food bank. That won’t be sufficient for replacing groceries people could have purchased with the lost SNAP benefits, says Belit Burke, who manages Oregon’s SNAP program. “We have a food bank system which is pretty overburdened,” she says. “They’ve had a hard enough time keeping up with the need currently.”

Even before the food stamps cut went into effect, many of the people relying on monthly SNAP benefits were also seeking help from Oregon’s food banks. The Oregon Food Bank, the state’s largest food bank with four regional locations, found that 62 percent of its clients used food stamps in a 2012 survey. The $84 million in benefits Oregon residents will not receive over the next year could have purchased roughly 27 million lbs. of food, according to estimates by the Oregon Food Bank. That's the equal to about a third of all the food the Oregon Food Bank and its network of local food bank providers distributed last year. “The food stamp program is really the first level of defense against hunger,” says Pat Kaczmarek, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Food Bank. “It’s just a huge program that charity cannot backfill.”

It’s not just food banks and the hungry that stand to suffer, says Burke, the SNAP manager. Food stamps can’t be stowed away in a savings account; their only purpose is to enable the purchase of food. So, grocery stores, corner stores and farmers' markets that accept SNAP as a form of payment might see a drop in revenue because of the November cut. “That’s federal dollars that’s not going into the economy anymore,” Burke says.

The impacts on retailers may vary though, says Melissa Porter, a spokeswoman for Grocery Outlet, an Oregon chain. Because Grocery Outlet sells food at a discount, it’s possible that its stores would see an uptick in customers who hope to maximize the value of their food stamps. Alternatively, it could mean existing customers now have diminished purchasing power, leading to fewer sales. “We are anxiously awaiting what that impact will be. We don’t know,” Porter says. Since food stamps don’t typically last an entire month, she says, “the real testing ground would be the third or fourth week of the month.”