WASHINGTON -- Next month food stamp benefits will automatically shrink for all 47 million Americans enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Pamela Gwynn of Crawfordsville, Ind., heard about the cut in a letter from the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. The letter explained that a federal law called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the "stimulus package," had given food stamp recipients a temporary boost in 2009.
"The increased benefits provided by this law are expected to expire on November 1, 2013," the letter said. "Most families will see their benefits decrease in November due to the end of the extra benefits provided by the 2009 law."
Gwynn, 63, said a series of brain surgeries in the late 1990s left her partially deaf and reliant on $731 per month in disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. Her monthly food stamp benefit will go down from $91 to $80. Gwynn did some arithmetic and figured that would leave her 88 cents per meal.
"Eighty-eight cents won't buy anything except a cup of ramen noodles," she said. "They just keep cutting and cutting. Eighty-eight cents -- you cannot even buy a can of tuna for 88 cents."
The Recovery Act's food stamp boost was not supposed to disappear so abruptly. The plan had been to leave the increase in place until inflation caught up through annual adjustments to SNAP benefit levels, which had been expected to happen in 2015. But congressional Democrats essentially raided the cookie jar, using the future planned spending to offset the cost of priority legislation in 2010. They said at the time that they would put the money back before any decrease could take effect, but they have not kept their promise.
The government calculated the food stamp stimulus increase by taking the level of benefits for the U.S. Department Agriculture's "Thrifty" food plan in June of 2008 and increasing it by 13.6 percent. In November, the USDA will reset benefit levels to the Thrifty plan level from last June.
A family of four receiving full benefits will get $36 less, while single households will get $11 less. People receiving the minimum benefit, just $16, will receive $1 less. Nationally, the reduction amounts to $5 billion next year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It's the first month-to-month food stamp benefit drop ever.
The decrease is automatic and completely separate from an ongoing debate in Congress over how much SNAP spending should be cut starting next year. Republicans in the House of Representatives want to cut the program by 5 percent, which would result in 3.8 million fewer Americans receiving benefits in 2014. But Senate Democrats are unlikely to go along; if the two chambers can't compromise, benefits will probably continue with no additional cuts.
The November reduction will be the second federal cutback affecting Gwynn's food resources this year. In the spring, across-the-board budget reductions known as "sequestration" trimmed funding for senior nutrition programs supported by the Administration on Aging. Gwynn said she used to receive a hot lunch every weekday.
"They took my lunches away because the sequester cut their budget so much they couldn't afford to pay the driver and they cut back to a once-a-week delivery," Gwynn said. The local agency on aging offered to bring seven frozen meals once per week, but Gwynn said no thanks. "When you live in an apartment you do not have a freezer large enough to hold what you already have in there and seven meals."
Gwynn said she won't starve. She's been getting by with dinner as her only substantial meal.
"I drink a glass of V-8 juice in the morning," she said. "I don't eat breakfast other than that and I don't eat lunch because I just can't afford to buy that much. I will eat a cup of soup if I get hungry."