When state governments retreat from the battle against hunger, it puts more pressure on emergency services such as food pantries and soup kitchens. Since the recession, food charities across the United States have been reporting historically unprecedented levels of demand for their services.
Margarette Purvis, the president and CEO of the Food Bank for New York City, the largest food bank in the United States, says that her organization has spent the past few years struggling to keep up with an explosion in demand. She has frequently referred to the level of need faced by her food bank as a state of perpetual emergency. As more people have gone hungry, the demographics of the food bank’s clientele have changed. Households that have never before needed assistance are now appealing to the meal providers of last resort. “We’re seeing more seniors, we’re seeing more families with small children, and we’re seeing more of the working poor,” said Purvis.
But not every state is tightening up access to SNAP. Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his administration had raised the gross-income threshold for SNAP eligibility from 130 percent of the poverty line to 150 percent. With that tweak, approximately 750,000 households became newly eligible to receive food-stamp benefits. (Illinois also raised its income threshold earlier this year.)
New York's eligibility expansion was the brainchild of the state's Anti-Hunger Task Force, an advisory group of charity heads and food-security experts that Cuomo convened in 2013. Purvis was the task force’s chair. Raising the income threshold “is going to help things dramatically,” she said, because gross income too often acts as a barrier to households that are still financially struggling and clearly food insecure. “I don’t think I’ve seen my SNAP team happier about any other news that we’ve shared with them ever, because we’ve seen so many families that are right there on the line, who know that if they were given a chance to apply, they would be eligible," said Purvis.
The governor will be announcing more anti-hunger initiatives in September, Purvis said. Other states may follow, and that would not be the first time in recent years that New York has set a precedent when it comes to food-stamp policy. In 2014, after President Obama signed a Farm Bill that would excise billions of dollars from SNAP, Cuomo rearranged New York's budget to prevent any cuts from taking place in the state. Before that maneuver, approximately 30 percent of the food-stamp cuts nationwide were expected to come out of New Yorkers’ benefits. “That was a really big deal,” said Purvis of Cuomo’s decision to block SNAP cuts. “That had us unable to sleep for a while."
Other states—including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Oregon—soon followed. But not every state affected by the cuts took action. Michigan, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and New Hampshire all lost SNAP benefits.
The Farm Bill and its fallout epitomize post-recession hunger policy. In the face of widespread hunger and federal budget cuts, some states try to mitigate the crisis with whatever policy levers are available. Meanwhile, others do nothing—or worse. For now, at least, state-level food-stamp policies range from inadequate to disastrous.