Weather Updates

Americans struggling with hunger can’t afford big cuts to food stamp program

Updated: August 2, 2013 5:18PM

Should we do all we can to root fraud out of the federal food stamp program and ensure benefits go only to those who need them?

Of course.

But that’s not what’s behind legislation that U.S. House Republicans are preparing that would lop as much as $4 billion a year off the $80 billion program, partly by tightening eligibility requirements and imposing drug testing and work requirements. The lawmakers behind the bill think the program has simply become too bloated and needs a healthy trimming. By comparison, a Senate proposal calls for just $400 million a year in cuts.

It’s easy to attack the idea of people living off food stamps when they could get a job instead. But it’s not that simple.

In a meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said only eight percent of people getting food stamps, officially referred to as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are on welfare.

“Ninety-two percent are not,” Vilsack said. “They are senior citizens, people with disabilities, men and women who are working — who may be working a part-time job or a full-time job that doesn’t pay them enough to make ends meet — and children. Nearly 40 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are children.”

The SNAP program has grown from $34.8 billion in Fiscal Year 2007 to $80.4 billion in Fiscal Year 2012. Almost 47 million Americans received food stamps last year, about the same number of Americans officially listed as poor: 46.2 million, or 15 percent of the population — a record.

The growth in the SNAP program has been driven in part by increases in poverty and joblessness in the Great Recession as well as a benefit boost as part of President Barack Obama’s stimulus program. But the stimulus bill expires in November, when — if no changes are made — the $668 maximum monthly benefit for a family of four will fall to $643. (The average household monthly benefit is $287.)

In a report last month, the Health Impact Project, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, said a reduction in food stamps would lead to less nutrition for Americans and an increase in health problems. Under one of the proposals in Congress, the report said, medical costs for diabetes alone could go up $15 billion over 10 years. That certainly doesn’t make massive cuts in the SNAP program sound cost-effective.

As in any program, fraud exists. Food stamps are distributed via electronic benefits transfers, which can be used like a debit card to boy groceries — but not cigarettes or alcohol — and recipients have sold SNAP cards for cash, drugs or alcohol, according to some state officials. But the USDA says fraud rates are low.

Kate R. Maehr, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, said her agency is seeing a record level of need for food.

“At at time when more than 860,000 men and women in and children in our community are struggling with hunger, any cuts to SNAP would be devastating,” Maehr said.

Last month, the Associated Press reported that four out of five U.S. adults will struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least part of their lives. The food stamp program is an important safety net for people who fall into those categories. If Congress wants to fight fraud, that’s sensible, but food stamps should be protected for the people who need them.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.