It's easily the equivalent of a few meals--possibly a week's worth. When food stamp benefits were slashed Nov. 2, one in seven Americans instantly became less food-secure. And while millions of families were warned in advance that less assistance would be available, the largest cutback in the history of food stamps is expected to have significant ripple effects on a post-recession economy: the reduction also means less revenue for grocers and farmers markets throughout the nation.
"We've known this was coming," said Niki Forbing-Orr, public information officer for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
Forbing-Orr said notice went out to more than 200,000 Idahoans in mid-October: "The reduction ... is the result of federal stimulus funds that expire October 31," read an Oct. 15 statement from IDHW.
At the height of the recession, a just-inaugurated President Barack Obama announced in 2009 that, as part of an economic stimulus package, participants in the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program--SNAP, aka food stamps--would receive a 13.6 percent boost. Meanwhile, food stamp participation continued to rise to record numbers.
"At all of the offices across the state, and especially this office, there were days when people were lined up to the walls, all the chairs were taken and people were sitting on the floor," said Julie Hammon, Benefits Program bureau chief for IDHW's Self-Reliance Program, as Boise Weekly toured IDHW's Fairview Avenue location, the busiest in the state. "The volume we have here is huge."
Idaho food stamp recipients peaked in January 2012--nearly 250,000 people--and are still staggering: As of Oct. 1, there were 221,717 Idaho food stamp recipients, representing 13.9 percent of the state's population. There are nearly 46,000 participants in Ada County and more than 41,000 participants in Canyon County. Together, the two counties total 39 percent of all Idahoans participating in the food stamp program.
This past summer, BW drilled into the details of Idaho's nutrition assistance program (BW, News, "The Food Stamp Myth," Aug. 28, 2013) and revealed several realities that flew in the face of often-repeated falsehoods: No. 1, well over half of Idaho's food stamp recipients are children; No. 2, adult recipients are expected to work the equivalent of 30 hours per week; No. 3, if recipients aren't working, they participate in training to secure employment; and No. 4, there are few exceptions to the must-work rule.
"What we can do here in the meantime is to try to stabilize a family and help them get those jobs," Russ Barron, statewide administrator of IDHW's self-reliance programs, told BW.
Job or not, the reality is that less assistance is now available.
"Because of cost-of-living increases, the net impact on the food stamp benefit is a reduction of about 5 percent," Forbing-Orr told BW. "The maximum benefit that a person can receive is about $200 a month. That will now be reduced to about $189."
Things aren't expected to get better anytime soon. The U.S. Congress is still tangling over a Farm Bill, which includes SNAP funding support. A bill passed by the Republican-controlled House would cut $39 billion from the program, and a bill passed by the Democratic controlled Senate calls for a $4 billion cut.
Idaho's congressional delegation has already weighed in on the matter: Both GOP Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson are in favor of the House Republican measure and GOP Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch aren't supporting the Senate Democrat proposal.
"People are living at the margins," Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center told Reuters. "It's not an abstract metric for people. It's actual dollars to keep food in the refrigerator."