Congress goes on vacation, leaving behind a headache for anti-hunger advocates

Photo courtesy of the Vermont Food Bank
Photo courtesy of the Vermont Food Bank
Congress departed Friday for its August recess after making the worst- case scenario for food stamps recipients twice as bad. Vermont officials, meanwhile, are drafting a letter to alert recipients about expected deep cuts, but there are blank spaces in lieu of actual numbers.

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.

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Alicia Freese

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  • Randal Murray

    Their is such abuse in the food stamp system, how about we focus on that and I am sure the cuts will be no problem. There is definitely a need to help people that have fallen on hard times, but maybe their should be a time limit, or an evalution to see what you are purchasing with other peoples money. When you see a person purchasing energy drinks, frozen pizzas and devil dogs with a EBT card wail texting on a smart phone with a pack of cigerettes in their pocket that shows me we have a broken system that needs an overhaul, not more money.

  • Elisabeth Hebert

    Randal is for sure right, there is abuse in that system – but then, isn’t there abuse in almost every system? That slipping through holes in the tax- laws of some corporations and indivituals, who certainly would not face starvation, isn’t that abuse as well? And I guess that costs us a lot more. So how can we get our lawmakers to fix ALL systems and not only the ones that apply to poor people?

  • Ann Raynolds

    And the corporations supplying soft drinks, sodas, frozen foods, etc. to be included for food stamp purchase cry foul when efforts are made to restrict food stamp purchase to FOOD only.
    We only have to look as far as last VT legislative session when efforts were made to tax sodas and soft drinks. Industry has a way of lobbying hard for us to buy and ingest bad things … remember the days of the Marlboro man?
    My experience working with poor families is to know just how much they depend on food stamps, food shelves and community dinners to feed their families and themselves.
    To me it is shocking that the richest country in the world has so many people on the level of hungry.
    Get industry out of trying to make a buck on food stamps, reform the system, don’t starve the food stamp program while starving the people depending on it.