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With more food stamp cuts on horizon, New Yorkers are still getting slammed by a 4-year-old mistake

New York City's emergency food aid systems are still overwhelmed four years after a bipartisan deal cut food stamps nationwide.

Food bank patrons in Brooklyn, New York. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
Food bank patrons in Brooklyn, New York. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

A 2013 cut to food stamps benefits continues to wreak outsized havoc on New York City’s poorest — as well as the organizations that stand in the breach to provide emergency food assistance to those facing hunger, according to a new report released by the city’s primary food bank network.

More than half of all food pantries and soup kitchens city-wide say they didn’t have enough food on hand to provide adequate meals or food bags to desperate visitors this September. More than one in three turned people away that month because of the shortages, the report says.

In all, New York City lost $1.3 billion in economic activity over the four years since a misguided obsession with deficits led Democrats to allow a roughly $5 billion cut to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits just ahead of Thanksgiving in 2013. The cuts drove food insecurity — a term of art meaning that a person doesn’t have enough food to get each member of their household adequate calories each day in a given month — to alarming historic highs in the city’s poorest corners. More than 1.2 million New Yorkers missed 225 million meals of nutritional intake combined in 2015 alone, the report says.

That’s a long legacy of harm for a set of cuts from years earlier. Indeed, the food charity network notes that the average monthly SNAP benefit in New York City is actually smaller now than it was after the cut first hit four years back.

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The numbers illustrate how painful the legacy of compromise on safety net spending can be for real people, even when politicians who support the programs manage to prevent the kind of mass savagery toward anti-hunger programs that conservative lawmakers have tried and failed to enact in recent years.

The Thanksgiving 2013 cut, dubbed the “hunger cliff” by hunger policy analysts at the time, has a complicated backstory. After raising SNAP benefit levels in response to the Great Recession, then-President Barack Obama’s White House team convinced Democrats in Congress to schedule an automatic benefit cut for 2013 on the promise that the party’s leaders would come back and fill in the missing dollars down the road. The “cliff” was there, but nobody wanted to actually jump off of it.

But after Republicans took the House and Obama proved amenable to deficit-panic politics, beltway conversations were hemmed in by the wrongheaded conviction that any policy change should be linked to large-scale compromises that would improve the nation’s balance sheet. These were the days of blue-ribbon commissions and grand bargain debt obsessions.

The debt fixation ultimately allowed Republicans to shut down the government in October 2013. The shutdown followed years of back and forth over spending. Federal programs had already been hemmed in for almost two years by artificial budget caps known as sequestration, a failed attempt at coaxing partisan negotiators into large-scale compromises.

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The various layers of gimmicks and cuts put artificial drag on economic growth for years even before the shutdown. After the 2010 Tea Party wave that made Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) Speaker of the House, Democratic party leaders decided it was politically impossible to keep domestic spending programs tied to inflation in future years, let alone to truly expand their buying power for low-income families.

Perhaps if leadership had taken a different lesson from the Tea Party moment — the role of white racial resentment against a black First Family in our politics, or the value of economic messaging that bypassed wonky technicalities and corporate donor relationships to play directly to family checkbooks — things might have gone differently.

But with debt panic suddenly bipartisan, despite strong reasons to think mainstream economists’ fears about spending were based on bad analysis, the scene changed fundamentally in ways that triggered the harm still widespread among New York’s hungriest. The Democrats’ elaborate scheme to schedule a “hunger cliff” then cancel it somehow down the road had been steamrolled by the potent combination of racial resentment and billionaire-backed backlash politics that ruled Obama’s first midterms.

This is no dusty history lesson applicable only to pop quizzes in a civics lecture hall. The SNAP program still faces the same vilification from the right and strategic over-thinking from mainline Democrats that led to the 2013 cuts. The Donald Trump era has only amplified the threats to food stamps benefits.

The budget blueprint Trump put out earlier this year called for a nearly $200 billion cut to SNAP over the next decade.

The roughly 25 percent cut to the program embedded in those figures is only part of the savagery on offer. By using block-granting as the mechanism for the bulk of the cut, the White House would be giving state lawmakers far greater latitude to tinker with the rules of a program that works as intended and delivers a cleaner report card on waste, fraud, and abuse than almost any other federal payments system. The result, in states ruled by conservative ideologues at least, would likely be wasteful drug tests and humiliating grocery cart micromanagement driven by bureaucrats.