Federal government wants to make it harder for low income people to get food stamps

The federal government is preparing a lump of coal for the stockings of more than 3.7 million people nationwide in the form of reduction in food stamp benefits.

Three proposals – one of which has already been approved – would tighten eligibility requirements, eliminating $4.2 billion in benefits for more than 2 million families nationwide.

According to a study by the nonprofit Urban Institute, nearly a quarter of households without children, elderly or the disabled who currently receive food stamps will lose eligibility if all three changes are implemented. Sixteen percent of households would have lower benefits, for an average monthly loss of $37 – about a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four. In addition, half million children would no longer be eligible for free lunches at school.

The justification, say the feds, is that a booming economy is reducing unemployment. Allowing people to remain on food stamps – officially the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) – fosters unhealthy dependence on government, says Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Public comment on the changes has been large and overwhelming critical, but to no avail. Critics of the changes point out that the people most in need of food stamps are those with chronic illness or lower levels of education and job skills who are not benefitting from the growing economy.

SNAP was originally designed to help people keep food on the table when they were unemployed and to provide assistance to those affected by economic downturns. The reality is that in today’s economy, many at the lower level of the economic scale continue to struggle even during boom times.

We certainly see that among our clients. Many are working families trying to make ends meet as the cost of living gets pushed ever-higher as a result of the economic gains effecting primarily the higher end of the job market. A family of four in Alameda with two parents working full time for minimum wage earns only about half of what the federal government considers low income for the Bay Area.

Congresswomen Barbara Lee is at the forefront of efforts to expand rather than contract SNAP’s reach, but the path forward is strewn with political obstacles. We should expect the problem of food insecurity to affect many Islanders for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the Alameda Food Bank will work diligently to see that everyone on the Island has enough to eat. Our income eligibility guidelines are more generous than the government’s, so not all of our clients are eligible for SNAP benefits (known as CalFresh in California). However, a good percentage of our clients do depend on SNAP/CalFresh and many of them will be affected. We can expect these rule changes to increase the need on the Island significantly.

Alameda has always been – and continues to be – a compassionate community, willing to help its neighbors in need. With the generous support of those who can afford to help, we will continue to provide fresh, nutritious food those who need it.