Reductions in food stamp eligibility, benefits, likely

Washington –- Dolores Yevich of Orange had no problem paying for food until her husband died in February.

Then the household income supplied by two Social Security checks shrunk to one Social Security check.

“I was desperate because I was destitute,” Yevich said.

Yevich, 70, applied for to the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program, a federal program commonly known as food stamps.

Now she receives $174 a month in SNAP benefits to help stock her pantry.

But the food stamp program, a favorite of farmers and anti-hunger advocates, has never come under so much fire in Congress. The heated debate over the program is expected to continue when lawmakers return from their  Memorial Day break next week.

But it’s almost certain benefits will shrink as well as the roster of those eligible for the program.

Mary Parizo of End Hunger Connecticut! predicts 85,000 SNAP recipients will see their benefits cut or will lose them entirely.

Yevich said she’s a “good shopper” who hunts for bargains. But if her SNAP benefits shrinks or disappears “then I’ll end up not eating healthy foods.”

Nutrition programs like SNAP account for the lion’s share of the farm bill under consideration in the House and Senate. That makes them an appealing target for budget cutters.

In addition, the number of Americans on food stamps has doubled since the recession began in the fall of 2008 –- and the cost of the program has more than doubled to nearly $80 billion.

At the end the end of 2007, there were 26.5 million Americans benefitting from the SNAP program. In February of this year, that number was 47.6 million.

Connecticut experienced a similar surge.

According to the Connecticut Department of Social Services, at the beginning of 2008 about 250,000 Connecticut residents participated in SNAP. More than 410,000 did at the end of last year.

SNAP "has come under attack and I believe that’s because participation has increased in the last two years,” Parizo said.

Numbers have dropped a little this year, a sign of the economy’s recovery.

But food costs are increasing, making it harder for low-income people to buy groceries, especially those who aren’t poor enough to qualify for SNAP.

According to the Consumer Price Index, the inflation rate has been around 2 percent annually for the past several years. But the cost of food has been rising at more than double that rate, between 3 percent and 5.5 percent a year.

Yet Congress is under pressure to cut billions from the farm bill, which will set spending levels for all farm and nutrition programs for the next five years.

The Senate farm bill would cut $4 billion from SNAP over the next decade.  The Senate also voted unanimously last week to bar convicted felons from the program.

Meanwhile, House farm bill negotiators approved $20.5 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next 10 years. That would push nearly two million people from the program, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“The House bill is a disaster,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, a champion of food programs. “This is certainly going to be a fight, a big fight.”

There’s another threat to the program. Money in the stimulus bill that increased the average monthly benefit by about $60 will run out on Nov. 1.

Mary Ingarra, spokeswoman for the Connecticut Food Bank, said food stamps cuts “could not come at a worse time.”

“We keep hearing the economy is improving but it’s not for people who are suffering from hunger,” she said.

Right now the current maximum monthly SNAP payment is $668 for a family of four. As income rises, benefits decrease.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., went on a food stamp diet last week, spending only $4.80 a day, the basic daily benefit for an individual.

“Even on this budget for just a week, it is pretty hard to not feel hungry, much less eat healthy foods,” he said.

Last week, Murphy and other fellow Democrats failed to restore some of the foods stamp cuts proposed in the Senate farm bill. Other attempts to increase the food stamp budget -– and cut it even further, are expected in the Senate next week.

But Murphy believes the real threat to the program lies in the House.

Two Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee -- Reps. Stephen Fincher of  Tennessee and Doug LaMalfa of California --   cited the Bible last week to argue that Christians have a responsibility to feed the poor,  but the federal government does not.

“The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,” Fincher said, citing a quote taken from the Book of Thessalonians.