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Food stamps see first enrollment drop since 2007

While Congress debates cutting food-stamp spending in the new farm bill, new data from the Department of Agriculture show that enrollment is declining. 

More than 350,000 individuals left the rolls of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in September, marking the first year-over-year decline since early 2007. For supporters of the aid program, the decline supports their view that cuts aren’t needed and that enrollment will slip on its own as the economy continues to improve. 

The Republican-led House is proposing to cut almost $40 billion in food stamp aid over a decade, amid concern over a ramp-up in federal spending since the recession. Democrats have proposed cutting SNAP by $4 billion over the same time period.

Spending on the program amounted to nearly $75 billion last year, or roughly 2 percent of the government's 2012 budget. That was more than double the $30.2 billion spent in 2006, before the recession pushed millions of Americans into poverty.

Such cuts would come after recipients are already feeling pressed by a benefits trim in November, when a temporary boost from the 2009 Recovery Act ended. Families of four were hit with cuts of about $36 per month in their food-stamp benefits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

The year-over-year decline supports projections that demands on the program would lessen over the next few years. Caseloads had already started to level off in 2011 and 2012, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted last month. Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office has predicted that spending will slip each year through 2023

Additional cuts to the program would come at a difficult time for many low-income Americans who are still struggling. Food insecurity, or whether members of a household are forced to go without food or a meal because of lack of money, has increased since 2008, a recent study from The Hamilton Project found. 

Yet despite the year-over-year declines, food-stamp enrollment remains high, a statistic that troubles critics of the program. More than 47.3 million Americans — or about 15 percent of the country — received food stamps in September. That’s lower than the 47.7 million who claimed the benefit in the year-ago period, but still far above pre-recession enrollment of about 26 million Americans. 

Despite the economic recovery, many families are still struggling to make ends meet, given high level of unemployment and the proliferation of low-paying jobs. About 43 percent of food-stamp recipients are employed, according to a 25-city survey from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. 

The November cuts were tough for many recipients, with clients of a Charleston soup kitchen stuffing extra food in their pockets to cope, The New York Times reported last month.

“People at this level of need are already going hungry,” Sister Noreen Buttimer, a nun who works at the soup kitchen, told The Times. “It’s frightening how we think about the poor.”

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