Idaho’s Shift In Food Stamps Timing Could Make For Empty Bellies On Independence Day

A boy named Dakota during a July Fourth watergun fight in Caldwell, Idaho in 2009. CREDIT: (AP PHOTO/IDAHO PRESS-TRIBUNE, CHARLIE LITCHFIELD)
A boy named Dakota during a July Fourth watergun fight in Caldwell, Idaho in 2009. CREDIT: (AP PHOTO/IDAHO PRESS-TRIBUNE, CHARLIE LITCHFIELD)

A change in state policy may eventually make life a little better for Idaho’s poorest families.

But first, people who are already forced to stretch a dollar farther than anyone else at the grocery store will have to find a way to get by for an extra week — and the timing could hardly be worse.

The state has distributed food stamps benefits on the first of the month for the past seven years. But at the start of July, Idaho will shift to a staggered issuance system for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), breaking up the state’s caseload across the first 10 days of each month.

“The Fourth of July falls on a Monday this year. I’m sure a lot of pantries that are normally open on Mondays won’t be,” Salvation Army of Ada County Director of Family Services Wendy Wong said in an interview.

An extra five days could make a big difference in what they’re able to put on the table.

“Just like any other group of people, people on food stamps celebrate holidays. They like to have picnics and barbecues,” she said. “It’s definitely going to affect their ability to celebrate the way that somebody who isn’t on SNAP would.”

The change should eventually help stabilize demand at grocery stores and food banks, distributing shoppers and produce more evenly across the calendar. Spreading out benefits delivery will also mean that potential computer glitches harm a smaller number of beneficiaries.

But the change will probably bring chaos and hunger at the outset, Wong said.

“Some of them are shoestring making it by on their food stamps as it is, so all of a sudden having that strung out by an extra five to seven days could make a big difference in what they’re able to put on the table for their family to eat that week,” Wong, whose group oversees a large food pantry in Boise, said.

Idaho is one of just eight states that currently pushes all SNAP benefits out to clients on the same day.

Such all-at-once disbursals create economic havoc for grocers, who see a glut of shoppers in the days after benefits go out and then a ghostly quiet weeks later. The boom-bust cycles make it hard to reliably schedule workers and inventory orders, and in turn create a more stressful shopping environment for low-income families.http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2015/05/12/3657467/food-stamps-junk-food-ban-history/Retailers have been out front pushing states to shift to a staggered benefits system like the one Idaho is adopting this summer. States that used to issue statewide benefits all at once have begun spreading them out in recent years, including Virginia. Places like Ohio and Maryland that already distribute disbursals have dilated their timelines even further in hopes of delivering greater retail stability.

That’s all to the good. But these policy shifts sidestep the root cause of the problem: Benefit levels are too low to carry a family through a full month. The system delivers an average of $1.42 per person per meal to those who enroll.

Beneficiaries burn through 80 percent of their monthly food support stipend in the first two weeks, leaving them to get through half the month on one fifth of the allotment. Shifting the timing of the benefits will eventually make shopping a less stressful in-store experience for those families. But it won’t make their dollar stretch further.

Insufficient monthly benefit levels lead to acute negative outcomes, the White House Council of Economic Advisers noted in December. Hospital admissions for low blood sugar jump by 27 percent among low-income adults by the end of the month as compared to the beginning, and low-income kids see disciplinary problems jump by 11 percent from the beginning of the month to the end.http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2015/07/07/3677408/drug-felony-lifetime-ban-food-stamps/Benefit levels have shrunk repeatedly in recent years as temporary boosts from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dried up. Republicans in Congress seek further, far more drastic cuts. By block-granting the program and shrinking the funding states receive for it, GOP budgets would force a $55 per person across-the-board cut to the already-meager benefits of SNAP.

Even absent such doomsday cuts, beneficiaries are in so tenuous a spot that Idaho’s well-intentioned shift in the food stamps calendar has the Salvation Army’s Wong nervous.

“Long term it might be a little better, but it’s going to take several months for our recipients to get accustomed to that,” she said. “We’re really worried. The thought of children not having food on the table for even a week is just devastating to us.”