Could You Eat on $3.37 a Day?

If Republicans in Congress are able to enact new reductions to federal programs, that's exactly what food-stamp recipients will get.
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Elizabeth Webster wakes up every morning at 5:30 to get her two daughters ready for school. If there’s enough left of the $440 the family receives each month from the food-stamp program, her daughters have fruit or vegetables in their lunches.

If not, well then, “you have to get creative with a hot plate,” she says.

Her family has moved from a hotel to an apartment in Kenner, Louisiana. But like other four-person families, to receive food stamps their gross monthly income must be less than $2,498 ($29,976 a year), and they must have less than $2,000 in countable assets.

So the prospect of cutbacks at the hands of Congress sends a shudder through the Websters’ future. Even if the cut is small -- $36 or so for them, under current plans -- it could leave them one step closer to the edge.

“I do not want to see them cut the program,” Webster said. “There are a lot of people struggling, and it becomes a situation of, ‘What do I feed my family?’ ”

She and her family are among the 47 million Americans -- and nearly 1 million in Louisiana -- who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- the official name for food stamps -- and who are facing the prospect of fewer resources as Congress debates just how much to pare the program back.

The legislative path forward is murky. Historically a part of the farm bill, the food-stamp program was separated into its own piece of legislation by House Republicans, who are leading the effort to cut it back. Now, even as the Senate has appointed conferees, the farm bill -- minus food stamps -- awaits conference; its future, and SNAP’s, are both uncertain.

What is certain, though, is that cutbacks are set to take effect regardless of Congress’s action on the farm bill and the food-stamp program. Temporary benefits as part of the economic stimulus enacted in 2009 expire on November 1. That amounts to a cut for an average family of nearly $30 a month, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

For the Websters, the hit would be $36 a month, according to Mike Kantor, director of public affairs for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana, where the family occasionally receives assistance.

Put another way, if Elizabeth Webster uses only food stamps, she will be feeding her family on $3.37 per person each day after the cut.

Americans’ use of the food-stamp program correlates strongly with the unemployment rate and the strength of the overall economy, according to Kantor, which explains why Congress temporarily increased benefits at the start of the Great Recession. But while the economy has recovered to a degree, more Americans are applying for SNAP benefits, designed to supplement what families spend on food each month. Kantor says the program is a significant source of food for many.

The Webster family’s experience tracks with the national picture. Forced from their home after Hurricane Katrina, they moved to Alabama, where Elizabeth, 42, worked as a security guard and her husband, Kenny Robert, had a job driving a tow truck. But the BP oil spill left both unemployed, so they moved back to Louisiana and applied for food stamps for the first time, Elizabeth said.

With the program’s help, her daughters Michelle, 17, and Denise, 15, ate fresh fruits and vegetables for snacks, and Elizabeth could make everyone’s favorites for dinner, albeit on a budget: spaghetti for Kenny Robert, roast for Michelle, and “anything you put on a plate” for Denise. Without the assistance, “we just learned how to eat hot dogs and biscuits and called them pigs-in-a-blanket,” she said.

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Michael Catalini is an online editor at National Journal.

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