A state official is anxiously waiting to see how much Congress decides to cut the foodstamps program before he alerts the public.
Dave Yacovone, the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), which oversees the state’s food stamp program (SNAP), said he wants to give families as much time as possible to prepare, but with a roughly $36 billion gulf between the two proposals on the table in Capitol Hill, he’s hesitant to ring the alarm bells just yet.
“There’s this careful balance of not wanting to alarm people, but on the other hand this is very serious proposal.”
Marissa Parissi, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, is also worried about getting this information out to Vermonters.
“Our worry is that they don’t know that these cuts are coming, and then all of sudden the 40 bucks they were counting on is suddenly gone,” she said.
The Farm Bill, which includes funding for SNAP, the federal food stamp program, is set to expire Sept. 30. There are roughly 100,000 Vermonters on 3Squares, the state’s version of SNAP, and they receive an average benefit of $123. About $150 million in SNAP funding flows into the state each year.
Two months ago, Vermont’s anti-poverty advocates grappled with the specter of a $20 billion cut over 10 years — that was the House GOP’s proposal at the time. Republicans have since separated the SNAP program from the Farm Bill and ratcheted up the stakes — the chair of the House Agricultural Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma, announced Thursday that their new proposal cuts $40 billion from the program.
The Senate passed a Farm Bill in early June that cut $4.1 billion over 10 years. Once the House passes legislation, the two chambers will have to hash out the differences in a conference committee.
If Congress to failed to pass a Farm Bill SNAP funding would stay intact.
That turn of events would have serious repercussions for farmers. Hunger Free Vermont has been advocating with the state’s dairy interests, and Parissi said they aren’t rooting for that option because their allies would lose price supports.
“There’s this kind of unbelievable compromise that needs to be made and it’s hard to imagine what will happen,” Parissi said.
Yacovone said he’s no stranger to political skirmishes over the food stamp program, but the situation feels graver this time around.
“This seems more real, and it is getting later. November is not that far away, so this will be upon us soon,” he said.
While state officials and anti-poverty advocates don’t know precisely what kind of cuts will come down the pike, they’ve got a general idea about what they’ll mean for Vermonters.
“It just ratchets up the level of toxic stress in a household,” Yacovone said. The cuts, whatever their size, will likely drive more people to food shelves, he predicted. His department isn’t in position to pick up the slack, he said, because SNAP is a federal program.
Judith Stermer, director of communications and public affairs for the Vermont Food Bank, said they, too, are bracing for that outcome.
“We’ve definitely have our eyes on this bill, and we are definitely fearful about those cuts,” Stermer said.
The Vermont Food Bank, which partners with 270 food shelves, senior centers, after-school programs throughout the state, will do its best to pick up the slack, Stermer said, but they’re already strained.
“We already have a stressed charitable food system and our partners are already strapped so cuts would be devastating… this is a fragile system.”
Stermer and Parissi also made the case that food stamp cuts could negatively impact the state’s economy. That $150 million benefits farms and other purveyors of food, and it eventually improves economic output by keeping be above the poverty line, Parissi said.
Regardless of where Congress settles, there’s one cut, distinct from the Farm Bill stalemate, that is looking increasingly likely. The program got a temporary boost through the recession-prompted American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), but it’s expiring in November and Congress hasn’t shown any indication that it’s going to stop that from happening. That means every food stamp recipient will see their benefit drop — a family of three, for example, will lose $29 a month, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.