The beginning of November always marks the start of the holiday season. On the morning of November 1st, stores swapped out their Halloween displays for Christmas decorations and radio stations began playing round-the-clock carols.
But November 1 marked something else for nearly 48 million who receive food stamps: an automatic reduction in the already modest benefits. The cut, which comes from the expiration of a boost included in the 2009 stimulus bill, will reduce benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by an average of 7 percent. That will mean a loss of about $9 per person per month or $36 a month for a family of four. Food stamps will now be, on average, less than $1.40 per person per meal.
The cut would hurt at any time of the year, but it will be especially painful because of the coincidence with the holiday season, already a struggle for many low-income families.
Patricia, a single mother of two children ages 10 and 12 who works in home health care for the elderly and relies on food stamps, told ThinkProgress that the reduction is going to make her holidays “extremely hard.” “There will be a strain,” she said, but added, “I will do my very best to make sure my family will still have a wonderful holiday season.” It’s just unclear what that will mean because she isn’t sure yet how much less she’ll see in food stamp benefits. It may include going to a food pantry for help.
A big part of the challenge is that both Thanksgiving and Christmas are at the end of each month, a time when SNAP benefits often run out. “If we aren’t able to stretch those dollars that far, well what do we do?” she asked. But she is hopeful it will work out. “It is my hope and my desire that I am able to manage, but at this point I can’t say,” she said.
Tony Simmons, a former Marine who has been homeless for two years after being injured on the job and spending some time in jail, said that usually on Thanksgiving he and friends don’t go home and instead have a feast together. But he relies on food stamps, and the SNAP cut has made his plans harder. “Now I don’t know what to tell these guys this year,” he said.
“Why do it at the holidays of all times?” he asked. “That’s the part that gets me.”
Bonnie Lane said that her benefits have been cut to $51 a month, which comes to less than $2 a day. That “makes it hard to cook Thanksgiving dinner,” she said. “How does one eat off that?” Soup kitchens and food pantries are one way to fill the gap, but they are already stretched. “These resources are over-crowded and rarely provide anything healthy,” she said, adding that their short hours also make it difficult for someone who works like her.
The cut will continue to be felt long after New Years Day, however. Patricia uses the benefits to help her buy healthy meals for her kids. “My children are honor roll students, and part of that plan is that they eat well so they can succeed,” she said. But fewer dollars will mean fewer options at the grocery store. “That means that we now may have to select things that may not be as healthy,” she said. “You’re taking away part of the tools that we use to have healthy and vibrant families.”
The reduction will also impact Tony’s health. He suffers from diabetes and hypertension, so it was already difficult to eat right and live off of SNAP benefits. Going to soup kitchens doesn’t do much since they don’t tend to have the food he needs to eat. Talking from a soup kitchen line, he said, “I can’t eat this food, this is exacerbating my diabetes every day.”
The cut will therefore make it much more difficult. “I always manage to get by, but when you’re getting by on a shoestring, now you’re getting by on a thread.” He won’t be able to go to the market and buy fruits and vegetables anymore. “You got to eat, you go to survive,” he said.
“It’s not that we are not working and we’re being lazy,” Patricia noted. “We are working and trying to make life better for ourselves and our families.” But that sometimes requires some assistance to get through. “Have they thought about cutting anything else before they decided to make the food cut?” she wondered.
With tears springing to his eyes, Tony echoed her sentiment. “I’m going backward instead of forward. This is stupid,” he said. But he added, “I’ve learned not to quit.”