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What SNAP Cuts Look Like in the Real World

Pamela Cataldo

In November, Congress failed to renew the 2009 stimulus provision allocating additional funds to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  This removed a much-needed $5 billion from an already underfunded public program tasked with keeping 47 million Americans from going hungry. The charity Feeding America described the cuts as being close to catastrophic, and, as Chris Arnade correctly points out in The Guardian, it means less food right now. In fact, it means an average of 21 fewer meals per month for a family of four.

During my travels as field investigator, I have met many people trying to make ends meet with their SNAP benefits—single mothers, the disabled, the elderly, the under/un-employed, and those who are forced to take jobs that do not pay a living wage. 

On a recent trip to Arizona, I heard firsthand how benefit cuts affect recipients of SNAP benefits. In Tucson, a public assistance client spoke to me about the frustration she experienced when trying to reinstate her SNAP benefits, which were cancelled due to a problem she did not understand. The woman had stood in line since 11 that morning—it was 4:30 when I spoke to her. She’d experienced long waits for each step in the process: speaking to a receptionist, accessing a SNAP application, and speaking to multiple officers. In the end, no one was able to help her. She told me she wasted an entire day at the public assistance office and still had no money for food. Then, she told me something I will never forget: “It doesn’t matter if I don’t eat. What matters is that I don’t have anything to feed my daughter for dinner tonight.” Her daughter couldn’t have been more than five-years-old.

In Detroit, Michigan, I met a single mother of two middle school-aged boys outside of a public assistance office across the street from rows upon rows of abandoned, graffitied, and boarded-up houses. In the past, she’d struggled to keep a job while also raising and caring for her children. She was forced to work whenever she could, taking part-time jobs that didn’t offer flexible hours or benefits. Cuts to the program meant less money, and, in her case, it also meant choosing between financial necessity and physical security. Noting the rows of abandoned buildings, the woman asked me, “Would you let your kids walk home alone from school here?” 

Finally, consider the laid-off mechanic I met in Brighton, Michigan. She had been unemployed for over a year, and, while her unemployment insurance was in effect, she was able to receive some SNAP benefits. But when I met her, her unemployment insurance had just run out. She was transitioning to receiving SNAP full-time, but the process to receive additional assistance took over two weeks to complete. When I spoke with her, it was her second week of receiving just $17 to live on for the next seven days. 

People use the system to survive. Those who abuse the system do not represent the overwhelming majority of honest people whose livelihoods depend on this program—trust me, I’ve spoken to them.