People relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) will find their benefits cut starting Friday, and community food assistance providers are bracing for increased demand.
The decrease will happen because Congress failed to renew the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which has adjusted SNAP benefits for inflation since 2009. When the federal stimulus package expires Friday, the cut will amount to about $11 per person per month for most recipients.
Monthly benefits vary according to income, household size and expenses, but the highest allotment a family of four can receive after the cut is $632 per month.
SNAP benefits will average less than $1.40 per person per meal in 2014, according to a policy briefing from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a policy and research organization in Washington.
SNAP funds could dwindle further in the future. In September, the House of Representatives approved a three-year nutrition bill that aims to cut about $40 billion over 10 years and provide various reforms to the program.
To those who already struggle to put food on the table, the coming benefit cut already is a major blow, say those who help to feed Schenectady’s low-income population.
“What it does is it creates more desperation among people who are poor and it creates more crises,” said the Rev. Phillip Grigsby, executive director of Schenectady Inner City Ministry, which operates a food pantry. “In Schenectady, rents keep going up and people have to spend more and more for housing and utilities, and you’ve got to choose to be in your house or heat your house or eat, and it’s just a big squeeze.”
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said he has seen growing need in local food assistance programs.
“The activity at our soup kitchens and our pantries and our food assistance programs — the numbers have all escalated. They have gone to record numbers in some cases,” he said.
The number of diners at Bethesda House’s free weekday meals has doubled from about 100 to 200 daily since the end of August, and Executive Director Kimarie Sheppard said she’s expecting to have even more patrons walking through the door once the reduction in SNAP benefits kicks in.
A loss of $11 per person in a family’s monthly budget means quite a bit less in the shopping cart.
“It’s meat, and we know how much food costs have gone up,” Sheppard said. “It would probably be two or three meals a week that a family would be missing out on.”
A letter has been mailed to SNAP recipients from the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance explaining the cut, but there is concern that many won’t receive it, won’t be able to read it or won’t understand what the cut means to them.
Every morning and during every weekday meal at Bethesda House, an announcement is made about the upcoming cut and clients are encouraged to visit case managers to learn what impact the decrease will have on their food budget. About 10 people a day are following through on that offer, a lower number than Sheppard said she had anticipated.
“I think because it hasn’t happened yet, they don’t realize what the impact is going to be,” she said.
Bethesda House also offers a six-week nutrition program that helps participants learn how to stretch their SNAP dollars.
More women and children have been showing up at the community meals at City Mission of Schenectady during the past several months, a population that development director Elizabeth Chamberlain said will likely be hardest hit by the upcoming SNAP benefit cut.
“There’s a lot of families in our community that rely on [SNAP], even families who are working,” she noted. “You see families who have lost jobs and then struggle to get comparable employment, but then there’s also families that really rely on SNAP benefits as well as [other benefits] just to make it through, so they’ll definitely feel it.”
To help people become less dependent on dwindling benefit programs such as SNAP, City Mission offers a Schenectady Works program to its shelter residents and to the community.
“By addressing the barriers that have kept them in poverty, our goal is to help them move beyond relying just on these services,” Chamberlain explained. “There’s nothing wrong with using services, they are beneficial. But by being able to demonstrate to people and help them gain the resources they need to bridge the gap between poverty and sustainablity, they can use the services as a resource and then move forward and progress to sustainablity instead of being stuck in poverty.”
For more information on the program, visit www.schenectadyworks.com or call 346-2275, ext. 341.