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Food insecurity worsened before food-stamp cuts

The food stamp program, the bête noire of government-spending critics, has slimmed down following November benefits cuts, but new research shows that the reductions are coming at a terrible time for many Americans. 

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, began cutting benefits last month to more than 47 million lower-income people, or one in seven Americans, as CBS MoneyWatch recently reported. The cuts will leave recipients with an average of just $1.40 to spend on each meal.

While many believe Americans are better off today than during the recession and financial crisis, that’s not quite the case, according to a new report from The Hamilton Project, part of non-partisan think tank The Brookings Institution. 

Food insecurity, or whether members of a household are forced to go without food or a meal because of lack of money, has actually increased from 2008, when the country was in the depths of a recession, according to the report. 

The increase in food insecurity might surprise some, given that the U.S. economy officially pulled out of the recession in 2009 and is in the midst of a recovery. But wages for many low- and middle-income households haven’t kept pace, with the median annual household income still lower than it was before the recession. 

The recent cuts to SNAP aren’t likely to improve the situation. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, the author of The Hamilton Project paper and a Northwestern University professor, tells CBS MoneyWatch that food insecurity rates will likely continue to climb, given the benefits cuts. 

“We know that private charity won’t be able to step in and fill the void," she said. “When food stamps are cut by $40 a month, for a lot people that’s the difference between making ends meet and not making ends meet.”

To be sure, spending on food-stamps has surged, with SNAP now a $75 billion annual program, up from $21.4 billion in 2003. Critics of the program were outraged earlier this year by San Diego surfer Jason Greenslate, who bragged about using food-stamps to buy lobster and sushi. “It’s free food,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

But Greenslate is in the minority of food-stamp recipients, given that he’s an able-bodied adult without dependents, Whitmore Schanzenbach notes. A separate study published this month from The Hamilton Project notes that almost 90 percent of SNAP recipients are living in a household with children, a disabled person or senior citizens. 

“Most of the benefits are going to families, those working with kids, the elderly,” she said. And those able-bodied adults without children who do receive food stamps are “people living on very meager earnings” such as “low-earning workers trying to get their legs out from under them.”

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