September 25, 2013

Food stamp cuts ahead as stimulus ends

Maine recipients will see up to $36 less per month just as Congress begins debate on even more reductions.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON – Food stamp recipients in Maine and across the country will see their benefits shrink in November regardless of the outcome of negotiations in Congress over deeper cuts being proposed for the program.

Four years ago, Congress approved a temporary increase in food stamp payments as part of the stimulus package that injected money into the struggling economy. That federal stimulus funding expires Nov. 1.

As a result, the maximum that a four-person family can receive each month will fall by $36 -- from $668 to $632. The maximum monthly allotment for a family of three will go down by $29.

Nearly 18 percent of all Mainers, about 253,000 people, received assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program last year, according to Census figures -- the fourth highest percentage of any state in the nation.

About 47 million Americans – nearly half of them children – participate in the program.

Organizations that work with low-income Mainers said the cuts will be felt.

"For most of us who are lucky enough to not have to worry about where our next meal will come from, $36 doesn't sound like much," said Sara Gagne Holmes, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an organization that works on poverty issues. "But for clients who are already struggling to meet their needs, this is a significant amount of money."

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities – a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C. – estimated that the loss of the additional stimulus money is the equivalent of taking away 21 meals per month for a family of four.

The center based its calculations on estimated food costs of $1.70 to $2 per meal, as laid out in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Thrifty Food Plan."

Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who has made welfare reform a centerpiece of his administration, cited the cuts Tuesday as another reason to oppose expanding the state's Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Maine Democrats have strongly criticized LePage for not agreeing to the expansion, which would be fully funded by the federal government initially but drop to 90 percent federal funding in later years.

"The federal government used stimulus spending to prop up welfare spending for food stamps, and that funding is coming to an end," said LePage in a prepared statement. "This is another example of the federal government reducing funds for welfare programs. Liberal politicians who keep promising that the expansion of Medicaid welfare will be 'free' should take notice."

The food stamps program is funded entirely by the federal government so the pending payment cuts will not require additional state expenditures. But there is no lack of political bickering in Washington over food stamps.

The cost of the program has more than doubled since the recession in 2008, and now exceeds $80 billion a year. While defenders of the program insist that such figures illustrate the scope of unemployment, critics primarily from the Republican side say the program is bloated and needs reforms to cull the number of able-bodied recipients who don't work.

Last week, the Republican-controlled House approved a bill that would reduce food stamp funding by nearly $40 billion -- about 5 percent -- over the next decade. The Democratic-controlled Senate has endorsed $4 billion in cuts, setting the stage for intense and unpredictable negotiations.

The prospect of federal budget cuts -- on top of the automatic cuts in November -- is a concern for food pantries in Maine, which serve as the "safety net underneath the safety net," said Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food-Bank, which receives food donations and distributes food to pantries statewide.

Miale said food pantries nationwide operate on about $5 billion, so the $4 billion-per-year cut proposed by the House would "crush" food banks with demand.

Food pantries are a less efficient and convenient way to provide nutrition assistance than food stamp benefits, which are loaded onto payment cards that can be swiped at the checkout counters of most grocery stores, she said.

The number of clients has doubled at many food pantries in Maine since the recession started, as more families have sought assistance when their food stamp allotments have run out.

"The need is not going away. It is going to us," Miale said.

 

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

 

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