Feeling budget cuts as hunger pangs

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Isaac Arnsdorf | 14 years, 10 months ago

Federal food stamp cuts resonate deeply amoung local families already struggling to survive

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

Suddenly, her world went dark. The mounting stress from working three shifts had induced glaucoma, an eye disease that causes partial or total vision loss. She lost her job because she could not see well enough to operate a cash register. But she still had three mouths to feed.

For this single mother and her two daughters, Emily and Rachel, both freshmen at Blair, the food stamps program is the last line of defense against starvation. In a county where 23,025 residents are enrolled in food stamps as of Nov. 1, according to the County Department of Health and Human Services, and at a school where 52 percent of students have at some time received Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS), food assistance is a common and often necessary government service.

Now, the aid on which many Blazers and their families rely could disappear. On Nov. 18, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly approved the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, cutting $50 billion from federal spending on food stamps, Medicaid, student loans, child care and other social services, according to public officials. The measure passed 217 to 215 without the support of a single Democrat.

The House bill, currently undergoing reconciliation with the Senate version, would exclude up to 300,000 current recipients from food stamps, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

For Blazers who already struggle to pay for groceries even with the help of food stamps, the cuts threaten to empty their pantries.

Less funding, less food

Food stamps provide low-income families with coupons and Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, redeemable at authorized food retailers. The food stamps program, permanently established in 1964, is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in conjunction with state social service agencies. Eligibility was expanded in 2002 to simplify the application process and encompass more immigrants and welfare recipients, according to the USDA web site.

The current bill aims to reduce spending on food stamps by limiting eligibility in two main ways. First, it would increase the waiting period for immigrants from five to seven years before they can begin receiving food stamps.

Laura, a sophomore, worries that this change would jeopardize her aunt's food supply. Her aunt, a recent immigrant from Ethiopia, depends on food stamps to feed her two children.

On a Sunday afternoon, the table is set with a bowl of steaming spaghetti, and Laura opens the door to greet her aunt. With her husband and two children in tow, Laura's aunt rushes to the table and piles a mound of pasta onto her plate. Laura is not surprised; her aunt's family often comes to her house to eat and then returns home to sleep. Despite their earnings, Laura's aunt, a babysitter, and her husband, an electrician, can barely afford to feed their children, even with the help of food stamps.

The new restriction is designed to prevent Laura's aunt and other legal aliens from exploiting government aid in violation of their immigration contracts, says Sean Spicer, communications director for the House Republican Conference. "When they come into this country, they sign an agreement that says they will not become wards of the state," he says.

The bill would also discontinue automatic food stamps enrollment for families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly called welfare.

Those who receive welfare cash benefits will continue to qualify automatically for food stamps, while those who receive other government assistance must reapply individually, according to a November report by the House Republican Conference. At the behest of moderate Republicans, the bill was modified to grandfather in current recipients who were automatically enrolled through welfare so that they will not abruptly lose their benefits.

"Robin Hood in reverse"

In addition to $50 billion in spending cuts, Congress approved a $70 billion tax cut, mostly for the top earning bracket.

"This actually adds $20 billion to the deficit," said Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) in a phone interview on Nov. 18. Half of the tax cuts go to the top 0.2 percent of Americans, who make over a million dollars a year, he said.

The news draws shock and indignation from Blair food stamp recipients, who question why the wealthy need more tax breaks. "That's not right," Emily exclaims. "They already have everything, and they're taking away from people who are [less fortunate]."

The House Republican Conference says that the reform will help end fraud in the food stamps program and concentrate funding where it is needed most. Spicer adds that Republicans did not propose new tax cuts, but rather renewed cuts that were set to expire.

Van Hollen called the initiative a Republican plan to transfer wealth to the richest Americans at the expense of the underprivileged. Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman agrees. "The Republican mantra is like Robin Hood in reverse: Rob the poor to feed the rich," he said in a Nov. 3 press release.

Coping with the cuts

Junior Kandace Dejá-Heard perceives the cuts from a socioeconomic, not partisan, perspective. She resents what she sees as a disregard for the poor on the part of generally affluent lawmakers. "Just because they can live off what they make doesn't mean everyone can live off what they make," she says.

Dejá-Heard used to receive food stamps in Georgia, where her extended family still lives in poverty. She and her immediate family in Maryland no longer qualify for food stamps, but her single mother's salary as a firefighter hardly guarantees enough food for her two children.

Another single parent, sophomore Ashley Gonzalez's cousin, relies on food stamps to supplement her salary as a store manager in order to feed her three children. Gonzalez cannot imagine how her cousins will eat without food stamps, especially since they already have difficulty even with assistance.

Although Gonzalez's cousin will probably not face exclusion from the current proposal, more recipients could lose benefits if the federal cuts are compounded with spending reductions at the state level.

Pointing out Governor Robert Ehrlich's precedent of supporting state initiatives that echo national Republican-led legislation, Lierman states, "This governor simply does what President Bush and Tom DeLay want him to do."

Budget cuts at any level will mean "working smarter" and adjusting to less funding, says Connie Tolbert, a spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. Although any cuts are bound to compromise the quality and extent of its services, the state still offers comprehensive resources to aid families, she says.

Furthermore, Tolbert expects rising government collaboration with private, faith-based organizations to provide food assistance in the future.

But Van Hollen does not share Tolbert's optimism. There are not a lot of alternatives for families who lose their food stamps benefits, he says, emphasizing the importance of the "safety net" of government social services.

For some recipients, friends and family comprise an important part of that safety net.

Sophomore Yohana Arias, who is seven months pregnant, considers herself lucky to have a large extended family that can help support her baby. She receives food and cash assistance from the USDA's Women, Infants and Children program and often works nights with her mother, a custodial supervisor.

For Emily and Rachel, friends, family and food stamps all helped their mother afford a full Thanksgiving meal last month. They are hopeful that their days of church-sponsored charity Thanksgivings are over. Their mother is interviewing for a new job as she strengthens in her recovery from glaucoma, which Emily describes as miraculous.

Still, their concern over losing benefits eclipses their hope.

Contemplating the hunger pangs that could beset her family if their food stamps were denied and their futures put into question, Rachel says simply, "That would be a very hard time."

Isaac Arnsdorf. <span style='display: none;'>Isaac Arnsdorf is a perfectionistic grammar nerd with no sense of humor. According to co-editor Allie O'Hora, "he enjoys listening to rhythmless, atonal 'music' and reading the encyclopedia." He sleeps with the Manifesto under his pillow.</span> More »

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