50 Million Americans Are Going Hungry As Congress Considers Gutting Food Stamps

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"50 Million Americans Are Going Hungry As Congress Considers Gutting Food Stamps"

(Credit: National Archives)

As Congress debates exactly how many billions of dollars to cut from the government’s main food assistance program for low-income Americans, a new report finds that the existing safety net has failed millions of people who must constantly worry about how to feed themselves and their families.

According to the International Human Rights Clinic of NYU Law School, the four biggest food assistance programs fall short for as many as 50 million food insecure households. Eligibility requirements are already so strict that one in four households classified as food insecure were still considered too high-income to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Even families considered poor enough for food aid only get a pittance that runs out quickly; for instance, the maximum benefit for a family of four is $668 a month, or a little under $2 per meal for each family member.

To demonstrate the impossibility of surviving on food stamps, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) recently spent a week eating on $4.80 a day, mainly consuming ramen noodles, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a banana. “I’m hungry for five days…I lost six pounds in four days,” Murphy said upon concluding the experiment. He also realized that nutritious food and produce was far, far out of reach for people living on SNAP benefits. Indeed, obesity and related diseases are common among SNAP recipients who simply can’t afford nutritious food.

As a result, many families can no longer rely on these benefits. Instead, they increasingly have no choice but to turn to emergency food pantries run by charities. In the wake of the financial crisis, 37 million people relied on these emergency food providers — a 46 percent increase from 2005. These charities, many of which took devastating funding hits in the recession, are struggling to accommodate the influx of needy people who are supposed to be covered by government programs. As for the recipients themselves, the stigma against hungry people has made many people feel humiliated to turn to these programs.

Republicans looking to cut SNAP and other safety net programs have painted recipients as perpetually unemployed people who have become “dependent” on the government because it’s easier than getting a job. In fact, more than 80 percent of families receiving SNAP include a working adult. Despite the stigma, the reality is that the many low-income or part-time jobs available to these Americans simply do not pay enough to sustain a family’s survival. Most of the remainder of SNAP recipients are disabled or elderly and cannot work.

One woman interviewed for the report is struggling to feed her daughters because her medical treatment has left her unable to work:

My food stamps are depleted after maybe two and a half weeks. That’s when our cupboards become bare and there isn’t anything left in the deep freezer. I start to worry about where our next meal is coming from. The first thing my daughters do when they come home from school is look in the refrigerator and say, ‘Well, Mom, we don’t have this, we don’t have that.’ I hear those words and I feel like I’m not providing for my children. Where I live, we are only allowed to go to the food pantries every three months. I get vegetables and bread there, but not meat. Not having meat is difficult for my girls. I make sure they always have something to eat—many times it’s canned goods.

Though the recession spiked SNAP enrollment by 76 percent, the program is still facing even steeper budget cuts that would take food aid away from more than 12 million people. Automatic sequestration cuts have devastated other nutrition programs, like Meals on Wheels for disabled seniors and the Women, Infants, and Children aid program (WIC) to provide pregnant women and their children with essential nutrients for proper development.

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