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New Jersey's Poor Struggle to Stave Off Hunger With Federal Food Aid

Hank Kalet | July 17, 2013

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program pays less than $1.50 a meal, but some critics contend that spending is out of control

Mirian Contreras, a single mother of three in Trenton, relies on SNAP and food pantries to help ensure that her family doesn't go hungry.
Mirian Contreras, a single mother of three in Trenton, relies on SNAP and food pantries to help ensure that her family doesn't go hungry.

As Congress debates the best way to pass a federal farm bill, advocates for New Jersey’s food-aid recipients are concerned that efforts to slash funding for nutrition programs could overburden family budgets at a time when the state’s economy remains fragile and its unemployment rate remains above the national average.

Those receiving food aid say they will need to make tough choices if money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is cut -- choices made all the more difficult because most are already buying only what they consider to be the necessities.

Critics of food-aid programs like SNAP, however, say reductions are required to rein in an out-of-control entitlement and that eligibility rules need to be changed to protect those truly in need.

The farm bill, known officially as the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act, is the chief funding mechanism for the federal Department of Agriculture. It funds grain and milk price subsidies, food inspection, and most of the nation’s nutrition and emergency food programs for families and low-income seniors.

Members of the Senate and House from both parties have been pushing for reforms that would update price supports and food aid but have been unable to reach an agreement. A Senate bill that included a 10-year, $4 billion reduction in SNAP passed, while the House bill, which called for $20.5 billion to be sliced off over a decade, was defeated 234-195 when members of both parties balked at the SNAP cuts -- Democrats because they were too large and Republicans because they were not large enough.

On Thursday, the House approved a version of the bill covering farm programs but not food aid. The vote was 216-208, with New Jersey Republicans Rodney Frelinghuysen, Scott Garrett, Leonard Lance, Jon Runyan, and Chris Smith voting yes and Republican Frank LoBiondo joining all six New Jersey Democrats in voting no.

A food-stamp bill is expected later in the year, though there is no timetable for action, staffers say. Food programs traditionally have been included in the farm bill to win urban votes for what have been viewed as rural spending and have not been voted on as separate bills for about 40 years.

A temporary benefit boost enacted as part of the 2009 Recovery Act will expire on November 1, which will decrease benefits for most SNAP recipients by $20 to $25 a month, according to estimates from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

Benefits and Beneficiaries

Nationally, about 50 million people receive SNAP benefits, some 40 percent of whom are children and about 8 percent seniors.

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In April, 859,353 New Jersey residents received SNAP benefits, nearly one out of every 10 people who live in the state. Almost four in 10 of those receiving SNAP live in Essex, Hudson, and Passaic counties. The number of SNAP participants has more than doubled since April 2008, just before the national financial collapse, with growth concentrated during the height of the crisis in 2009-2011 and slowing the past two years.

“[SNAP participation] is about as high as it has ever been,” said Diane Riley, director of advocacy for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, the state’s largest food bank. "You have to remember that New Jersey still has quite a high unemployment rate, higher than the national average. You will see less SNAP participation as a natural effect of a better economy.”

Shawn Sheekey, director of the Camden County Board of Social Services, said agencies are still dealing with the increase in clients -- and that the jump in numbers has come from a new segment of the population.

“It has doubled in size, but what is amazing to me is . . . we obviously deal with the inner-city poor, but what is so different about this whole Great Recession is seeing families that were traditionally not on any kind of assistance come in,” he said. “Families where the mom and dad were working at $90,000 jobs and the company downsizes.

“We are seeing more of that type of activity,” he added. “People need the benefits to keep the family fed.“

The growth in SNAP participation, which tracks closely with the growth in unemployment nationally and in the state, shows how important federal nutrition programs are, advocates say. The programs are needed to prevent hunger and to ensure that hundreds of thousands of Americans, including a record number of New Jersey residents, can continue to put food on their tables.

Ray Castro, senior policy analyst at the liberal New Jersey Policy Perspective, called SNAP benefits necessary for New Jersey’s low-income families.

“Without the supplementary programs for the childless and for families, it is hard to see how they would survive in New Jersey,” he said.

The November cuts, he said, would reduce the amount provided per meal under SNAP from $1.48 to $1.40.

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“That is not much to live on,” he said. “Any additional cut beyond that will be a major problem, particularly in New Jersey because our economy has not recovered as quickly as others have.”

Riley said food banks and soup kitchens will not be “able to pick up the slack."

“We are supposed to be for emergency and not this kind of support,” she said.

Too Generous

But critics of the program say that food aid is too generous and that better controls are necessary to ensure that the programs only serve those who need help the most. Groups like the conservative Heritage Foundation have been critical of the program for fostering what it calls a dependency culture.

Rachel Sheffield, a research assistant at the foundation, said on the organization’s blog that “food stamp spending should be rolled back to pre-recession levels when the employment rate recovers” in an effort to “get spending under control.” The program, she added, needs to “be restructured to promote work instead of discourage it.”

“Smart cost reforms accompanied by efforts to promote self-sufficiency through work would take food stamps off its reckless spending spree and put it on a road to fiscal responsibility,” she said.

Runyan, a South Jersey Republican, was one of two New Jersey Congressmen -- Frelinghuysen was the other -- to vote in favor of the farm bill in June. He called its failure “another example of Washington making the perfect the enemy of the good.”

The legislation passed the House Agriculture Committee with bipartisan support and would have “included over $40 billion in savings to the taxpayer,” he said in an email. The $20.5 billion in “reforms to the SNAP program” would have been “the first major changes since the welfare reforms of the 1990s,” he said.

“I have yet to see a federal program that doesn’t at some point need to be updated, both as a means of protecting the taxpayer, and ensuring these programs can be sustained, and are meeting their intended purpose,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr., who represents Essex and parts of Hudson and Union counties, said in a press release that SNAP was a “vital program that helps families that are struggling to make ends meet” and that the proposed House cuts were “completely unconscionable.”

“In the best nation on Earth, it is astonishing that millions of people, many of whom are children, still go hungry,” he said. “As leaders we have a responsibility to protect our children and promote the well-being of the most vulnerable.”

Payne added in a second release Thursday that “separating supplemental nutrition assistance from the Farm Bill went against a four-decade precedent.” Congress, he said, has “completely turned their back on starving children and the most underserved in this country.”

Fellow Democrat Albio Sires, who represents parts of Essex, Hudson, Union, and Middlesex counties, called the passage of a Farm Bill “critical” to the nation’s food supply. But Sires voted against the bill, he said in a press release, because he could not “support measures that achieve that goal by slashing nutrition assistance to our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Both Payne and Sires -- along with Democrats Rob Andrews and Bill Pascrell and Republicans Chris Smith and Frank LoBiondo -- voted for an amendment that would have restored full funding for SNAP in the bill. The amendment was defeated before the June vote.

A separate amendment that would have increased the SNAP cuts by nearly $11 billion to $31 billion over 10 years was also defeated. Republican Scott Garrett, who represents Warren and parts of Sussex, Passaic, and Bergen counties, was the only New Jersey Congressman to support the amendment.

Forced Reductions

Studies by liberal groups say that the House bill would have forced as many as 2 million people off SNAP, nearly 60,000 of them in New Jersey. The Senate bill cuts $4.1 billion over 10 years by imposing new eligibility requirements tied to energy assistance -- the so-called heat-and-eat programs -- and making other cuts. Those state-level programs allow low-income people to deduct payments they receive from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program from their overall income when calculating their SNAP benefits.

SNAP also is facing more direct cuts, as are other nutrition programs, like Meals on Wheels, Senior Congregant Care, and a federal farmer’s market program that enables low-income families and individuals to shop cheaply at local produce stands.

Jim Sigurdson, executive director of Community Services, Inc. of Ocean County said the larger senior programs like his could be affected if the nutrition programs are cut. If that happens, he said, it would have a geometric impact.

Seniors who rely on agencies like Community Services for some of their primary meals and who rely on the federal farmer’s market program would need to plug those gaps with what is left of their SNAP benefit or their own resources.

“The fresh produce is significant for someone who is of low income,” Sigurdson said. “Oftentimes, there is a trade-off. You have to purchase things that are of less nutritional value because you have to have your belly full. Can of pasta costs a whole lot less and it has a longer shelf life.”

Senior congregant meals help seniors “stretch that food stamp budget,” he said, and “contributes to the overall health of these individuals and allows them to remain living in their own homes and their own communities. And it keeps them out of institutions that put a greater tax burden on the public.”

Riley said the eligibility and income changes being proposed by both houses will only further chip away at food programs that keep many above water. Under current rules, a family of four earning about $42,000 could be eligible for food aid; eligibility changes, however, would put the ceiling at about $23,000 for the same-size family, leaving a lot of families without assistance.

“Imagine living on [$42,000] in New Jersey and not needing help,” she said. ”To take it back to $23,000, that is going to send more people into a desperate situation.”

Breaking the Budget

Carolyn Biondi, executive director of the Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton, said that SNAP benefits affect the entire family budget. Recipients, she said, “rely on food stamps to meet food needs, but also to offset those costs so they can pay their other bills.”

Castro agreed. He said that about 80 percent of food-aid money is spent within the first two weeks of the month, which leaves families in a bind.

“They have one family budget to live on and, if they have less money for food in food stamps, that means they don’t pay their rent that day to make up the difference,” he said. “That is the choice they have to make: whether they want to become homeless or go hungry.”

Mirian Contreras, a single mother of three in Trenton, has been receiving food aid through SNAP for three years and still has to visit food pantries periodically to ensure she has enough food in the house. Her SNAP benefit, she said through a translator, is $429 a month. She works full time earning about $1,000 a month after taxes, but pays $650 for a small, one-bedroom apartment next to a liquor store in the city. She doesn’t have a phone and uses state-backed charity care when she needs to see the doctor.

SNAP allows her to buy the basics -- bottled water, meat, rice, milk, juices, and occasionally fresh fruit. She generally shops at one of the small food stores in the city because she lacks transportation, but they are more expensive than the larger supermarkets in neighboring Ewing or Hamilton.

She tries to put a little away each week “for emergencies,” though she generally has to “tap into that at the end of the month,” she said. She received about $2,500 from the Earned Income Tax Credit last year, she said, though most of that has been spent.

“If you take away food stamps or cut what I get, it would be much worse,” she said. “With $650 for rent and the check I get, it is not enough. Everything comes and goes so quickly.”

Judith Elboraa, of South Brunswick, says the SNAP program has allowed her to keep food on the table since being stricken with cancer several years ago. She works when she can, but she is limited in the kinds of jobs can do because of her health and a lack of stamina.

“I was working a full-time job in retail when I got cancer,” she said. “After that, I couldn’t go back to retail anymore, because it was too strenuous. Then I had to go on Medicaid, welfare, and SNAP because I couldn’t go back to work.”

She has worked sporadically since, though her wages have never been enough to maintain a household that includes her son and her elderly mother and regularly has to find ways to cut back on expenses.

“We’ve had to make a lot of cuts,” she said. “When I was working, I took my son out to eat now and then. We’ve cut back to necessities, cut out all the luxuries.”

And she coupon shops.

“I have to be more careful in checking the stores to see what is on sale,” she said. “Now, it is ‘don’t buy something until it goes on sale somewhere else.’ If I’m going to splurge and spend a little extra on a chicken that is not on sale, it is going to hurt us by middle of month, because we will have nothing left.”

Elihu Froomess, a senior citizen living in Brick Township, said his SNAP benefits -- “somewhat less than $100 a month” -- often do not last beyond the third week of the month. If they were cut, he said, the five days per month that he has to scrape by would be much longer, though he said he is lucky to qualify for various senior services.

“I’m very fortunate that because of the federal programs still intact I don’t have to make some of these choices, because my medical and healthcare are provided through federal and state programs,” he said.

Still, there are five days a month, “when I have to seriously consider what to do,” he said. “It is a mix of prayer and fasting or relying on others.”

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