About 210,500 local food stamp recipients will see their monthly benefits reduced by about 5.5 percent starting at midnight Friday, which some advocates for the poor say could be the first of many hits to come to the safety-net program.
The 2009 Recovery Act — also known as the economic stimulus bill — temporarily boosted the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, for its 48 million recipients nationwide, including 1.8 million Ohioans. On Friday, those boosted benefits will expire, resulting in automatic cuts to monthly distributions.
On average, individual food stamp recipients in this region receive between $117 and $137 per month in benefits.
For a mother with two children, the reduction comes out to about $29 a month, or 16 modest meals, according to some estimates. For a family of four, that translates to $36 less a month, or 25 fewer meals.
“Thirty six dollars is significant,” said Marilyn Tomasi, the vice-president of communications for the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. “It might not be significant for some, but it certainly is to a struggling family who is hungry. You could have a whole chicken dinner once a week for that.”
Deeper cuts to the program could be forthcoming given that Congress is battling over federal spending related to the farm bill, which funds the SNAP program. A House bill seeks to reduce funding to the program by $40 billion over 10 years, while a Senate version trims it by $4 billion.
Poverty advocates said these cuts would be devastating for needy families. But critics said federal spending on food stamps has spiraled out of control without sufficient justification or definitively reducing hunger or improving nutrition.
In July, about 1.8 million Ohioans received food stamp benefits, including 210,497 residents in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties, according to the most recent data from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
The federal food stamp program distributed $242 million in benefits to Ohioans in July, including $28.2 million across this region.
Recipients on average received $117 in benefits per month in Miami County, or less than $4 per day. In Montgomery County, recipients receive about $137 per month.
Tough for struggling families
Individual food benefits will decrease by about 5.5 percent starting on Nov. 1, because a temporary funding boost to the program expires, said Benjamin Johnson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
The maximum benefit for a family of four will decrease $36 to $632. But Johnson said there are numerous variables that determine a household’s monthly benefits, and some households will see a slightly larger or slightly smaller decrease.
The automatic cuts will hurt many Ohio families whose benefits are so low they already do not last the entire month, said Michelle Riley, CEO of the Foodbank Inc. in Dayton.
“It will make it tougher for families to put food on the table,” she said. “Basically, per person per meal, (benefits) will go from $1.50 to $1.40.”
Many families who receive food stamps also rely on groceries and support from food banks and other charities to scrape by.
Riley said she fears there will be higher utilization of those services, which are already struggling to meet the enormous demand placed on them by the recession and persistently weak economic conditions.
Missy Bergholz, 32, of Dayton, has re-applied for food stamps after moving to a new home with her 4-year-old daughter, who is disabled.
Bergholz said in September she received $198 in benefits to feed her daughter and herself, which she used to shop at discount stores.
She said her monthly benefits do not stretch very far, even though she avoids pricier items like quality meat, and the food she buys is usually is gone by the middle of the month or the third week.
She said a reduction in benefits means she will be forced to more frequently visit food banks to get donated groceries.
“It would make it harder to make it through the month,” she said. “The economy is not the greatest right now, and there’s not any jobs.”
The cut will translate into $193 million less in food stamps in the next nine months in Ohio, and that will also negatively impact grocery stores, distribution chains, farmers and other businesses, Riley said.
“When you talk about $193 million in direct benefits being cut from the economy, that’s a huge deal,” Riley said. “You can’t balance the budget on the backs of poor people — that has a ripple effect.”
And that’s only the first hit, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, the executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.
Hamler-Fugitt said a farm bill wending its way through Congress could cut food stamps by up to $40 billion over the next decade. The combination, she said, would be a disaster.
One in four kids in the state are now considered “food insecure,” and more than one in six Ohioans are suffering from hunger or food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Reductions ‘good first step’
The House’s legislation could eliminate assistance to 4 million Americans, including 163,000 in Ohio, according to some estimates.
But the cuts on Friday will only reduce benefits to pre-recession levels, meaning there will be a minimal impact on communities, said Michael Tanner, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C.
“It’s hard to see this as devastating since what we are talking about is returning to levels we had in 2009 or 2008,” Tanner said. “That was not known as the year of the great American famine.”
Tanner said the proposed cuts in the House’s version of the farm bill are a “good first step” to prevent people from receiving food stamp benefits indefinitely or who should not qualify.
He said spending on food stamps exploded because officials relaxed eligibility and work requirements.
Amber Curry, 35, of Dayton, also said she is not concerned about the reduction in benefits.
Curry, who receives benefits along with her 12-year-old son, said she sticks to a budget and she uses her benefits to go shopping twice a month to make sure they last.
“You are not getting a big chunk taken from you,” she said. “My food stamps last the whole month, because I shop every two weeks.”