With a devastating economic recession cutting a painful swath through American life in 2008-2010, the Obama administration and public-spirited local leaders encouraged out-of-work families to make appropriate use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, popularly referred to as food stamps.
Before the housing crash, about 26 million received food stamps. This summer, the total reached almost 48 million, or one out of every seven Americans. The cost has swelled at the same time. Even with some paring-back now in progress, the program is expected to cost $74.4 billion this fiscal year. In comparison, fiscal year 2014 defense spending is expected to total about $832.2 billion, or about 11 times as much.
On Nov. 1, a temporary boost in food stamps benefits came to an end. It had been part of the Obama economic stimulus plan of 2009. This will reduce the program’s overall cost by $5 billion in the 2013-14 period. A family of four receiving the maximum benefit will see a $36-per-month reduction, from $668 to $631. Individual maximum benefits will fall by $11.
This isn’t a big reduction. But it’s easy to see that $36 may easily represent a family’s entire food budget for a day or two. At a time when science points to life-long developmental impacts from childhood nutritional gaps, it’s no small thing to ensure some essential baseline for meals every day.
Now, both to begin reining in the federal deficit and out of a philosophical wish to make sure people practice self-sufficiency, the Republican-controlled U.S. House aims to trim an additional $39 billion for the program over the next 10 years. Senate Democrats look for saving of about one-tenth as much.
It’s understandable from a budgetary standpoint to worry about all expenses. But cutting food stamps – even the short-term boost in them from 2009 – is premised on a different view of reality, one that may exist only within the U.S. capital Beltway. In the majority of the nation, the lackadaisical recovery still feels like a depression to many working families. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call them “formerly working.” Old jobs have gone away and new jobs aren’t being created very fast.
As federal aid dwindles, community volunteers and civic groups are struggling to fill gaps – for instance by sending backpacks of basic food supplies home with schoolchildren on Fridays. Local charity is wonderful and can be an efficient way of delivering calories where they are needed at low cost. But is it sufficient to feed millions? Almost certainly, the answer is no.
If we are to cut back on food assistance – and allow emergency unemployment benefits to lapse on Jan. 1 – we need at the same time to greatly improve job re-training and perhaps provide direct federal jobs to the long-term unemployed, as the Works Progress Administration did in the 1930s.
Together, cutbacks in food stamps and jobless benefits could easily shave half a percent from our economy this winter. Our fragile recovery – and fragile working families – can’t withstand this.
There are many things America should cut first, before we start carving holes in our minimal social safety net.