WASHINGTON – Some 47 million poor Americans who rely on food stamps for their meals will have to get by on less, after their benefits were cut Friday.
“The impoverished are forced to eat junk if we want to eat,” said 32-year-old Tabitha, a mother of a 2- and 7-year-old staying at a Culver City, Calif., shelter, who asked her last name not be used to save embarrassment. “It’s going to be difficult, as it already has been. I don’t understand why there’s all this government funding, all these programs, and why feeding down-and-out people is not as important as it should be.”
The cut was triggered by the expiration of stimulus spending Congress approved in the depths of the Great Recession. But it is unlikely to be the last; in Washington, the House and Senate are trying to reconcile measures each approved that would reduce food stamp spending by billions of dollars more.
Friday’s benefit reduction was meant to be timed to a brightening economy, yet many Americans remain stuck in poverty despite improvements from the worst of the recession.
“I think it’s a horrible thing,” said Najuah Mudahy, 30, also of the Culver City shelter, a food stamp recipient who works two jobs, as a clerk at a shoe store and a hostess at California Pizza Kitchen. They bring in $9 an hour. Mudahy said she runs out of money to keep her 3-year-old daughter fed before the end of every month, even on dinners of canned soup.
“It only forces people to do desperate things,” she said of the cuts.
Food advocates say there are millions of others in similar predicaments and implored Congress to stop seizing on the program for budget trims.
Even before Friday, government statistics show, the benefit fell short of keeping those on food stamps well nourished. In California, the monthly allocation for a family of four with no income has now dropped to $632. The benefit varies around the country, based on the cost of living.
About 14 percent of all Americans are on food stamps. The program has grown rapidly in recent years, attracting the attention of deficit hawks, who note it now costs taxpayers $75 billion a year.
The legislation approved by the Republican House could lead to nearly 2 million Americans losing access to the program, according to congressional analysts.
The cut approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate would be much smaller, reducing the program by $4 billion over the next 10 years as compared to the $40 billion cut approved by the House.
Obama administration officials say the reductions that went into place Friday are certain to result in missed meals for those enrolled. There are 7 million Americans for whom food stamps is their only source owf income, according to Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The cut “is a huge challenge for those households,” he said. Local food banks, Concannon said, are not positioned to serve as backstops.
“It would be like asking someone running a marathon with a 100-pound pack on their back to take on another couple hundred pounds,” he said. “They don’t have the capacity to do this.”
At the Alameda County Community Food Bank, one of the largest in the San Francisco Bay Area, officials say making up for the cut that took effect Friday would require the organization to provide some 5.5 million additional meals per year. “This isn’t about taking some luxury items out of your food budget,” said Michael Altfest, a spokesman for the Alameda food bank. “For most people receiving this, it is their only source of nutrition for themselves and their families. This is a lot of food. It is many meals.”
Officials in other big states are also alarmed.
In Texas, about 4 million people receive food stamps each month, a dramatic increase from 2.5 million five years ago. The latest cuts will drain $411 million from the state economy, said Celia Cole, CEO of the Austin-based Texas Food Bank Network.
“That’s a big hit for the state,” she said. While many Texans have bounced back from the recession, she said, “the number of people living in poverty has not changed – things haven’t gotten better for them yet.”
The impact of the cuts, experts say, goes beyond those who receive food stamps. The USDA estimates that every $5 spent on food stamps generates $9 in economic activity.
“It affects the whole supply chain of stores, the number of employees they have, the suppliers of goods,” said Patrick Burns, a senior researcher at the Economic Roundtable, a Los Angeles-based research group. “Those ripple effects go through the economy.”
(Halper reported from Washington and Chang reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Kate Linthicum in Los Angeles and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston also contributed to this report.)
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