NEW YORK CITY — New Yorker Winsome Stone said her family would go hungry without the federal supplemental nutrition assistance program, or “SNAP,” which provides food stamps she can use to pay for groceries. She is among the 47 million people - one in six Americans -- enrolled in the program, which costs taxpayers $80 billion annually. The program has mushroomed since the stock market crash in 2008, when 32 million Americans were enrolled.
Even with food stamps, Stone said her family often runs out of food, and must visit a free food pantry in Brooklyn run by the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger. Located in the largely poor, African-American neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant, the food bank is one room arranged like a grocery store. Those in need may visit once a month to pick up supplies of fresh vegetables, meat, rice, milk and the like.
“I’m not sure what I’d be eating honestly [without aid], and that’s such a devastating thing that you don’t even really want to think about it, really,” Stone said. “It is frightening to know that you may not be able to feed your children.”
Stone and her husband, a security guard, have four children under 18 and one in college. They both work full-time, but their wages are so low there is little left after they pay for housing. They are still feeling the pinch after cuts to SNAP in November, when they lost about $50 of their $668 monthly allotment.
They may face a new reduction. The U.S. Senate will vote soon on legislation that would cut SNAP again, by $800 million a year over the next decade. It is a 1 percent reduction that anti-hunger advocates say will still be damaging, cutting an average of about $90 from the food stamps of 850,000 people.
“I try to find a way to not focus so much, to keep yourself sane, because if you really take into consideration, I think you would really go crazy,” Stone said. “After you pay your rent, pay the light and the gas, you know what I’m saying: got to run to the food bank, got to wait earnestly on my SNAP, I wait on it, I count the days, I check to see if it is there -- even when I know it’s not time, I still check, because I need it.”
Melony Samuels, who like Stone was born in Jamaica, founded the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, which is funded by donors and partly staffed by volunteers. In addition to food, the organization provides needy clients with social service assistance, including help in applying for SNAP, and obtaining health insurance. It also offers health screenings, exercise and nutrition classes, and operates a small urban farm in an empty lot next door.
Samuels was working as a sales executive 16 years ago when she read a news article about a disabled woman struggling to feed her four children.
“It’s just an instinct to help your neighbor, so I went into my cupboard, I took food from my cupboard, and drove 62 miles - gave it to her, and decided to take care of her. What started out with one family has now evolved into over 200,000 families, individuals,” each year, she said.
Today, Samuels said, the economy may be improving overall, but poor people aren’t feeling it. Food banks like hers ran out of supplies after earlier SNAP cuts took effect in November 2013.
If the program is cut further as expected, she said, “I don’t know what we’ll do, I really don’t. By cutting SNAP, it might to some people say, ‘We just took $11, or we just took $50’ -- Well, that equates to meals,” she said, noting that SNAP calculates each meal at about $1.33.
“When you take $11 from a family, you take approximately eight meals from them. So, you have families going from pantry to pantry hoping to get enough food to feed their families, and it should not be so in a country so powerful and so rich,” Samuels said.
Conservative critics of the SNAP program, however, contend that it is abused by some people who don’t really need help, and that the states encourage over-use by less needy individuals, in order to get more federal money flowing into their economies.
Economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research said, “I support the cuts because the number of people on food stamps has been growing, even as the unemployment rate has been going down.”
She added, “The program used to set limits for able-bodied adults of about, as I recall, it was about three months, and then they had to go back to work. These criteria have been removed, so able-bodied adults who can work can now be on food stamps indefinitely. There also used to be tests for different amounts of wealth and assets. These also have been removed or whittled down.”
So, she said, someone who is retired might own a million-dollar house, and have savings in the bank, but still be eligible for food stamps - because his or her income is low. The program should be restructured to make such people ineligible, Furchtgott-Roth said, and run by the states. “States need to be given a fixed food-stamp budget, so they figure out who in their states really needs the food stamps. We cannot do it in Washington,” she added.
But anti-hunger advocates say cases of prosperous people on food stamps are rare, and that further cuts will only hurt the most vulnerable. Joel Berg, of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said, “Two-thirds of the people who receive SNAP benefits are children, senior citizens or people with disabilities. It is an absolute myth to imply the vast majority are able-bodied adults who just don’t want to work.”
As for healthy adults who receive aid, he said, “Tens of millions of Americans who are working sometimes full-time and playing by the rules, still don’t earn enough to feed their family, and have to rely on the food stamp SNAP program. That’s been one of the most profound changes in American society over the last 30 or 40 years - the growth of the working poor, the depression of wages so much that when you’re working full-time, you can still be poor.”
Melony Samuels said what she sees every day is simple desperation. No one with a choice, she said, would subject themselves to applying for aid.
“When you look at the fact that an individual will stand on a line three hours, they will stand on a line three, four hours before it’s opened up, in the cold, in the rain, in the snow, in the heat, I don’t think that’s a job, I don’t think it’s a hobby. I think people are trying to survive,” said Samuels.