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The House is expected to revisit cuts to the food stamp program as soon as Wednesday, which could slash spending by $4 billion a year for a decade (if passed by the Senate and signed by President Obama). There are few issues in which the numbers on the spreadsheet more poorly reflects\ the effect on the public.

When the House considered the farm bill earlier this summer, the massive package including agricultural subsidies and food stamp provisions (technically, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), the Republican leadership was unable to negotiate a solution to the differences in political support between those two things. (We wrote about that schism in July.) Eventually, the House passed the agriculture subsidies, punting off renewing funding for SNAP. Until now.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities outlines the likely proposal from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Cut SNAP "by at least $40 billion over ten years — double the cut in the House Agriculture Committee farm bill and almost nine times the SNAP cut in the Senate-passed farm bill."

For context on that proposal, we can look at the historic trends of food stamp usage. Below is a chart of spending on the program from 1968 to 2012, the last complete year for which data is available. We looked at the number of people on food stamps as a function of population (blue line), the amount each person received in benefits in 2012 dollars (gray area), and the costs of the program per 1000 people in 2012 dollars (yellow line). From 2001 to 2012, there was a big uptick in the segment of the population that used food stamps. In 2009, there was a big spike in the amount each beneficiary received as the number enrolled increased due to the recession.

Data from the USDA. Conversion of dollar amounts via Oregon State.

What does a $4 billion a year cut look like? Completely in the abstract, it looks like this. In 2012, the program spent about $78.445 billion, offering recipients $133.41 in benefits. Strip away $4 billion, and that drops to $74.445 billion in costs; adjusting the benefits proportionally, each beneficiary then gets $126.61, or five percent less. (Costs in 2013 were projected to be slightly higher than this.)

But that's not really how this works. The CBBP explains that the cuts wouldn't just drop the amount available to a constant number of recipients. It would, instead, drop people off the SNAP rolls entirely. Specifically:

  • 2 to 4 million adults in high unemployment areas who earn in the area of $2,500 a year per person
  • 1.8 million people that use the program to supplement an income that is above the poverty line but live in areas with high rent or child care costs

This isn't a family losing out on an extra $7 in benefits. According to the CBBP, it's families losing a key support for absorbing food costs. ThinkProgress outlines some of the likely effects of these cuts; MSNBC spoke with food bank providers.

The proposed changes are “shocking,” according to Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of Food Bank For New York City, one of America’s largest food banks.

“In New York City alone, if these cuts go through, we are talking about in a single year having 76 million meals be gone,” said Purvis. “[That] is more than what we distribute in a year.”

Another important consideration, as our colleague Derek Thompson notes at The Atlantic, is that those whose incomes are low enough to maintain the need for supplemental assistance on food fall into an income bracket that spends more of its money on food. The bottom 20 percent of income earners spend 16 percent on food. The top 20, about 11 percent.

For the poor, food, clothes, and housing account for more than 60 percent of all spending. The rich have more left over for leisure, insurance, and savings.

The term consumption takes on a more literal meaning when you see the difference between rich and poor spending. Cash-hungry families consume more of their income immediately, spending two in three dollars on absolute essentials like food and shirts.

That's what food stamps are meant to do: help poorer families both pay their food bills and free up disposable income for other things. (Like shirts, apparently.) In the abstract, cutting program spending with a small per-person effect seems practical. In practice, the effects can be staggering.

Last week, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published an opinion column that we saw via Steve Silberman. It makes another point about SNAP use: the people using the benefits don't fit neatly into expectations. The column is written as a letter to a woman who snickered at the writer's use of SNAP at a store.

If I’d had the guts to talk with you, I would have told you about my disabled 28-year-old son living with us. We have never asked for public support for him.

But recently we have decided that it is our responsibility to introduce him to the programs that will have to support him when we are no longer here to care for him. We started small: He is eligible for food support, and he agreed to receive it to be able to feel that he is contributing his share to the food bill, since he is unable to work.

Government programs rarely have a more immediate effect on Americans than does the food stamp program. Which is why it's important to recognize that the numbers are not the only important consideration.

Photo: Linda Davis of Pittsburgh discussing her need for food stamps in February 2012. (AP)

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