United States to Fall Off ‘Hunger Cliff’ Friday, Hitting Women and Families Hardest

An across-the-board reduction in food stamp benefits takes effect Friday, and more cuts are on the horizon.

An across-the-board reduction in food stamp benefits takes effect on Friday, and more cuts are on the horizon. Cliff via Shutterstock

Advocates are warning that the United States will go over a “hunger cliff” Friday, when benefits to all food stamp recipients will decrease, with women and children particularly affected.

“This is the first time in the history of the program that an across-the-board reduction of benefits will take place,” Triada Stampas, director of governmental relations and public education at the Food Bank for New York City, told Rewire.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, is the largest domestic program to fight hunger. SNAP benefits will decrease on November 1 because a recession-era boost to the program’s funding is set to expire. But the massive food insecurity caused by the recession is far from back to normal; food stamp usage exploded from 26 million people in 2007 to 47 million in 2012.

Just as the holiday season begins, everyone who relies on SNAP will see their benefits decrease, but women and children, who make up 80 percent of SNAP’s recipients, will be the most affected.

“This is very, very much a women’s issue, and very, very much a family issue,” Stampas said.

Women are more likely to be poor than men at all stages of their lives, and many SNAP recipients are single mothers or elderly women.

Food stamp benefits are already modest, so even seemingly small cuts can reduce food security, or sufficient access to safe, nutritious food. Benefits currently average about $1.50 per person per meal, and the average benefit per household is about $275. A family of four will receive an average of $36 less per month starting November 1, reducing the per-meal budget to less than $1.40.

Most families can cover food for just two-and-a-half to three weeks out of the month with SNAP right now, San Antonio Food Bank CEO Eric Cooper told CNBC. With the pending cuts, that number would fall to two to two-and-a-half weeks.

When SNAP benefits run out, many families turn to food pantries. But food pantries are already feeling an economic strain. In New York City, Stampas said, 40 percent of SNAP recipients are also forced to turn to food pantries and soup kitchens.

“We’re bracing ourselves for what’s to come, but I can’t say that we are prepared in any real way,” Stampas said. “The cuts that are coming tomorrow in New York City—76 million meals over the course of a year—exceeds the amount of food we, the largest food bank in the country, distribute every year.”

“There is no single charity that can make up the size of this cut,” she said.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering additional cuts to SNAP above and beyond the “hunger cliff.” The farm bill conference committee first met Wednesday to try to reconcile a Senate bill that would cut about $4 billion over the next ten years, and a House bill that would cut about $40 billion.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) led a coalition of 38 Senators to urge the farm bill conferees not to make any more cuts to SNAP.

“Families who are living in poverty … did not spend this nation into debt, and we should not be trying to balance the budget on their backs,” said Sen. Gillibrand.

The $40 billion worth of cuts in the House version of the bill would cut millions of people from SNAP rolls, and eliminate free school meals for 280,000 children. Conservatives defend the additional cuts to food stamps as a form of deficit reduction. The deficit is now half of what it was in 2009, and U.S. Department of Agriculture research says food stamps generate $1.79 in economic activity for every dollar spent on the program.

“Need is still incredibly high, and SNAP benefits are being reduced. The cost of food has gone up, and SNAP benefits are being reduced,” said Stampas. “This is moving things in the wrong direction for struggling families.”