Washington — When Jody Rodiger of Manchester volunteered to help Connecticut’s needy buy food, she never thought she would one day also depend on food stamps.
“I advocated for it for years, I knew the program inside and out. But I never thought it would be for me,” Rodiger, 50, said.
Like many who’ve recently swelled the ranks of the SNAP, as the food stamp program is now known, Rodiger is a middle-class professional. She and millions of other American victims of the recession suddenly found they could not afford food.
“It was a lifesaver,” Rodiger said of the food stamp program.
But Congress is expected to cut the SNAP program this year, although it’s not known by how much. Senate Democrats have proposed trimming the program by $4.4 billion, while House Republicans are seeking a $33 billion reduction.
The $80.6 billion spent on SNAP this year is the largest part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget.
The Congressional Budget Office determined that the House GOP’s cuts would drop 1.8 million Americans from the SNAP program, while reducing aid to millions more.
The Senate farm bill would change SNAP program rules to reduce benefits to some people who also receive energy assistance payments.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, a champion of SNAP, said she is outraged that lawmakers have targeted nutrition programs like SNAP, and left farm subsidies and other agriculture programs intact.
“I don’t care if it’s Democrats or Republicans, I’ll do battle with both,” DeLauro said.
Anti-hunger groups are also doing their part in trying to stop the cuts.
“People think of Connecticut as a rich state and what does it matter if food stamps are cut,” said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut. “But we have a fair amount of poverty, and food pantries can’t take on any more people.”
She said the average monthly SNAP benefit for a Connecticut household is about $218. “That really isn’t that much — and (Congress) is thinking of cutting it,” Nolan said.
The prospect of a shrinking SNAP budget also worries beneficiaries such as Rodiger.
She lost her job at a nonprofit three years ago and has had plenty of other problems since then, including an auto accident that left her temporarily disabled and illnesses she said are brought on by stress, including arthritis.
Rodiger lives on $210 a month in cash assistance, $200 worth of food stamps and whatever help with the rent her family can give her.
She said she’s working on getting healthy so she can hold down a job. But for now, she said, “The extra help provided by food stamps gets me through.
“Without it I’d be having to go to pantries and shelters,” Rodiger said.
In February, nearly 200,000 Connecticut households received food stamps, double the number of households enrolled in the program in February 2006.
Some of the increase was the result of the state’s decision in 2009 to raise the SNAP income eligibility ceiling from 130 percent to 185 percent of the federal poverty level and eliminate the consideration of assets when determining if an individual qualifies for the program.
“But, certainly, the economic downturn was responsible for major increases in enrollment,” said David Dearborn, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Social Services.
DeLauro said the program is meant to grow when times are bad and shrink when they aren’t.
“That’s the way it’s always been, so why are we changing it?” DeLauro asked.
She also said SNAP cuts “would have a serious impact in Connecticut.”
“One out of every seven people in the 3rd Congressional District is food insecure,” DeLauro said. “They don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”
Like most of the budgetary issues before Congress, the fate of the SNAP program is likely to be determined in a lame duck session after November’s elections.