News Column

Food Stamp Cuts Kick in Today

November 1, 2013

Virginia Young, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Across-the-board cuts in food stamps kicked in Nov. 1. (file photo)

Nov. 01--JEFFERSON CITY --People living in poverty could find it harder to pay the grocery bill this month. An across-the-board 5.5 percent cut in food stamps takes effect today.

Benefits are being scaled back because of the expiration of a temporary boost passed by Congress in 2009 to help people during the recession.

As of last month, 905,311 Missourians and 2.1 million Illinois residents received food stamps. The program covers families with gross incomes of no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $30,615 for a family of four.

"We're talking about people who are just scraping by," said Glenn Koenen, chairman of the hunger task force for the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, which advocates for low-income people.

The average food stamp allotment for a family of four in Missouri is about $360 a month, although some receive more, he said. The cut means roughly $20 less for groceries for such families.

"It means they're not going to be able to buy five gallons of milk next month with their food stamps, or three bags of apples," Koenen said. "They're going to feel it, even though it doesn't seem like that much."

Jennifer Rapplean, 36, of St. Peters, said she receives $526 per month in food stamps for her and her two children. The reduction will leave her with $497.

"It seems like a lot, but it doesn't go far," she said of the food stamp benefit, adding she'll have to "make it stretch" after the cut.

Food pantries expect to feel the cut, too.

Jewish Family and Children's Service serves more than 7,200 people a month at its Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry on Baur Boulevard in Creve Coeur. Since July, the pantry has been inundated with increased demand, said Louis Albert, the agency's executive director.

Albert said people losing food stamps will "end up with less food. Could they make up the difference by going to a food pantry? I would say probably not likely, because food pantries can only give out the food they have. And the level of need has grown so much ... that there's not enough food to keep pace."

Some of the people who need food are struggling with reduced work hours at low-wage jobs or the upcoming expiration of extra unemployment benefits that were part of the federal stimulus act, said Miriam Mahan, executive director of Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Services in St. Peters.

"The ripple effect of this is, we will be seeing more families relying on food stamps to meet their basic needs," said Mahan, whose agency operates a food pantry that serves St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties.

The federal food stamp program -- formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- has been under the microscope lately because of several proposed changes.

Gov. Jay Nixon suggested tightening the state's food stamp criteria to remove most able-bodied, childless adults from the program. But he dropped the idea last month after a intense opposition from fellow Democrats.

The program remains on the chopping block in Washington. The U.S. House and Senate are sparring over how to downsize it as part of differing versions of a farm bill.

The Senate's bill would make relatively minor changes, saving an estimated $4.5 billion over 10 years, while the House plan would remove 3.8 million people from the rolls through various eligibility changes.

The program's critics say it has grown too large and has loopholes that have been exploited. Supporters say cutting benefits would cause hardship for people in poverty, including millions of children.

The proponents say they have been busy fighting the Nixon proposal and the farm bill, so they didn't spend much energy contesting the automatic cut kicking in today.

"You've got to marshal your resources where you think you can do some good," said Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare.

She said the across-the-board cut erodes benefits that are already too skimpy to pay for what the USDA considers a nutritious meal.

Benefits are calculated based on income, household size and expenses, such as housing and utilities. Keeping in mind that many people do not receive the maximum benefit, here is how the cut will affect those at the top benefit level:

--A cut of $11 a month for a single person, leaving $189.

--A cut of $20 a month for a family of two, leaving $347.

--A cut of $29 a month for a family of three, leaving $497.

--A cut of $36 a month for a family of four, leaving $632.

The program is funded by the federal government but administered by state governments. The Missouri Department of Social Services said the agency sent food stamp recipients letters informing them of how the change would affect their benefits.

In the St. Louis area, the program serves 121,862 people in St. Louis County, 110,283 in St. Louis, 27,167 in Jefferson County, 21,587 in St. Charles County and 13,130 in Franklin County, according to the most recent figures from the social services agency.


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