SNAP Cuts Hurt Bronx Families

As a Public Benefits Advisor at The Bronx Defenders, I have seen the devastating effects of the recent cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP benefits – formerly called “food stamps” – help low-income Americans feed their families. When Congress allowed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to sunset on November 1st of last year, SNAP funding decreased by $5 billion. As families with nowhere else to turn came to The Bronx Defenders’ community reception center, I found myself referring family after family to food pantries; the number of families I referred to food pantries in November alone skyrocketed. As these families struggled to handle the cuts to their monthly benefits that left them with approximately $1.40 per person per meal, they had no choice but to begin the holiday season with the fear they would not be able to provide for their families. Our staff at The Bronx Defenders worked with families to fill the gaps between their SNAP benefits and the realities of their needs by cobbling together a combination of food pantry referrals, grocery vouchers, and holiday food giveaways, but it came up short to the security of SNAP.

Congress has now agreed by a frightening margin (68-32 in the Senate and 251-166 in the House) to cut an additional $8.6 billion from the program over the next decade. Although lawmakers claim that the cuts will only affect a small number of recipients by closing a loophole that allowed recipients in certain states (including New York) to take advantage of the program, the reality is that the cuts will have a disproportionately negative effect on recipients living in New York City.

SNAP recipients in NYC must contend with the highest cost of living in the nation. Rent in New York is astronomically high, the Section 8 housing program has essentially been shut down, and the waiting list for NYCHA housing has ballooned to over 167,000 families. As a result, New Yorkers must spend a disproportionate amount of their income on rent. Furthermore, it is not only housing that is more expensive here; food costs more, too. According to the latest Community and Economic Research cost of living report, groceries in New York City cost 149.9% of the national average.

I know from working with clients on a daily basis that SNAP goes to families who depend on the program for basic, everyday nutrition, and not – as some politicians claim – to individuals looking to scam the system. In fact, of all federally run programs, SNAP boasts one of the lowest fraud rates. Moreover, the majority of all SNAP payment errors are a result of caseworker error, and nearly a fifth of those errors are underpayments, resulting in recipients receiving less than they are entitled to. Additionally, SNAP trafficking rates, defined as “when SNAP recipients sell their benefits for cash to food retailers, often at a discount,” have declined steadily since the mid 1990s and are now near historic lows. While the most recent USDA report indicates that trafficking has risen slightly from 1.0 percent of national SNAP benefits in 2006-2008 to 1.3 percent in 2009-2011, this increase has been attributed not to an increase in fraudulent activity, but rather to the 70 percent growth of the SNAP program. As a result of the economic recession and accompanying high unemployment rates, the total number of SNAP recipients has increased substantially during the years in question.

As the richest country in the world, we should take a step back and ask ourselves whether we feel comfortable asking our fellow Americans to make the decision between keeping a roof over their families’ heads and putting food on the table. It is important that we recognize SNAP for what it is: an important source of support and basic nutrition for families across the country.

By: Ariel Powell, Public Benefits Advisor at The Bronx Defenders