Food Stamp Allocations Should Take Into Account Where You Live

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Analysis Law and Policy

Food Stamp Allocations Should Take Into Account Where You Live

Sheila Bapat

The federal poverty guidelines, which dictate eligibility of most public benefits, including food stamps, is flawed in that it does not account for variances in cost of living.

After months of debate, federal cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) program, better known as food stamps, are nearly final.

Republicans and Democrats will likely settle on a $9 billion cut to the program over ten years, which will result in about $90 less in each food stamp check for nearly a million participants. That is a large sum for people living paycheck-to-paycheck, especially the female heads of household who are disproportionately represented among food stamp recipients. As new research from the Food Bank for New York City reveals, food banks in that region are already seeing a 25 to 50 percent increase in the number of visitors following previous cuts to the program that went into effect November 1, which will slash funding by $11 billion over three years.

These Republican attacks on food stamps have received a great deal of attention in recent months. However, this focus obscures a deeper flaw in public benefits generally. The federal poverty guidelines, which dictate eligibility of most public benefits, including food stamps, do not account for cost of living in each U.S. state. Poverty guidelines are based only on overall national changes in the price of retail goods, but a person’s ability to spend money on any retail goods depends significantly on the context in which they live. Thus, food access—in addition to rent, insurance, and child care—is even harder for low-income households, disproportionately headed by women, in high-cost-of-living areas.

What do the cuts mean for women located where the cost of living is highest? California and New York are two of the most expensive places to live in the United States; three of the top five cities in the country with the highest cost of living are in New York, and four out of the top ten are in California. Despite problems with food affordability and insecurity in both states, the federal food stamp program does not bump up payments for people living there.

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To be able to afford to live in California, the average childless woman must earn $11 per hour. While California recently increased its minimum wage, the wage hike only reaches $10 per hour and does not take effect until 2016. According to the 2013 Report on the Status of Women and Girls in California, in 2011 the poverty rate among California women was 18 percent, compared to the national rate of 17 percent, while the rate for men and boys in the state remained steady at 15 percent. Some 45 percent of households in California headed by women with children under 18 earned below the poverty level.

California also ranks last in terms of food stamp participation: Half of people eligible for food stamps are not actually receiving the benefit, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey released last year, in part because of a number of systemic barriers. As a Los Angeles Times article pointed out last year, the state requires onerous paperwork for recipients and is known for confusing eligibility requirements and online applications, as well as unhelpful benefits offices. In addition, California has a law on the books that imposes a lifetime ban on convicted felons from receiving food stamps.

Because of these circumstances, reliance on donations from food banks continues to be high in California, and citizens are not able to adequately leverage the spending power of food stamps.

Victoria Sutherland, 34, is a mother of one who was convicted of a drug violation in 2000 in Oregon. She moved to California in 2007 and lives near Sacramento. Formerly a manager at McDonalds, Sutherland has been out of work since 2012. She is living in a transitional house and awaits the start of a job-training program. Because of her drug conviction, she has not been able to access food stamps for herself—though she does receive $200 in food stamps each month for her 9-month-old son, Daniel. She also receives food vouchers through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, though these vouchers are for specific food items and do not function as cash, as food stamps do. Sutherland relies on food banks to make up for what she can’t buy.

“It’s tough here in California,” she told Rewire. “I end up pretty much broke in the middle of the month every month. I do appreciate what I am getting at food banks. It’s better than nothing. But my baby is eating more and more every day. I’m still breastfeeding, so I’m hungry all the time.”

Last year, California considered a bill, SB 283, that would repeal the state’s food stamp ban, but it died in committee last August. Groups like California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA) are trying to increase food stamp enrollment, though the many barriers they face make their job a difficult one.

“CalFresh [California’s food stamp program] is a powerful resource for families in need because it provides valuable nutrition,” said Matt Sharp, senior advocate with CFPA. “With high unemployment and expensive housing, CalFresh helps close the affordability gap for four million Californians.”

Similar cost-of-living and food insecurity concerns are found among many New York women as well. According to a 2013 report by the New York Women’s Foundation, half of all single mothers in New York City have an annual income of less than $25,000. The report explains:

In New York City, because the cost of living is higher than in most cities in the U.S., lower earnings and income mean that single mothers have to struggle to meet the basic needs of their families. In many cases, they must rely on family, public assistance or other supports to make ends meet.

New York also ranks in the bottom half of states in terms of food stamp accessibility. Food insecurity is a problem for many New York women: According to the Food Bank for New York City, 34 percent of women experienced difficulty affording food in 2012, an increase of 21 percent since 2003. New York food banks have also experienced longer lines recently.

Pamela Brown, 55, used to earn $85,000 per year as an executive assistant on Wall Street. In 2010, she lost her job and was left to raise her three teenage children on her own in Manhattan. Her total monthly welfare check included $368 in food stamps, $400 in housing subsidies, and $200 in cash assistance—just under $1,000. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a family of four actually needed five times that in 2008, when its research was conducted, to live in New York City.

“My parents were civil rights activists. I was raised to believe in self sufficiency. It was hard for me to apply for food stamps,” Brown told Rewire. “Buying anything healthy for my three kids to eat? Forget it. It was impossible off of $368 per month.”

Brown now works as an activist with Community Voices Heard, a New York City agency comprised of women welfare recipients who advocate for better public benefits policies, and no longer relies on food stamps to make ends meet.

To be sure, access to food stamps is important for all who are struggling in the United States; rising rural poverty rates show that a $90-per-check cut will hurt many, regardless of where they live. However, as the Urban Institute has pointed out, poverty remains highest in urban areas, at 20 percent in both 2011 and 2012.

And in places where the overall monthly cost of living is highest and only growing higher—and where many opportunities for work are increasingly limited to low-wage jobs—food stamp allocations really should be increasing. As the National Center for Policy Analysis pointed out in November:

Because the cost of living varies widely across the United States, the federal poverty threshold is not a meaningful definition of minimum living standards. How much a family can buy with those benefits depends on where they live.

Rather than cutting public benefits, Congress should increase benefits overall, with a bigger bump in places where it is most expensive to live. Some policymakers’ persistent disdain for public benefits, which results in decisions like the current multibillion-dollar cuts, only further handicap an already flawed system. This disdain precludes any conversation about increasing overall federal support for this program, which could help many women and their families avoid hunger.