Monday, June 25, 2012

How Cuts in Food Stamps Could Affect New Mexico

Alexander Calder Sculpture, Hart Senate Office Building
So now we know that the Senate last week cut $4.5 billion in benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in its version of the Farm Bill, despite a heroic effort by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, to restore funding by shifting some funds from the crop insurance program.  The $4.5 billion would be cut over 10 years.

"That amount is a small fraction of the nation’s spending on food stamps, currently nearly $80 billion a year, but would, nevertheless, be devastating for nearly half-a-million households that would have their benefits sliced by an average of $90 per month, according to the Congressional Budget Office," The New York Times noted in an editorial.

“With these cuts, hungry Americans will find it more difficult to put food on their tables during this recession,” said Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World.  Read more 

The cuts in the Senate could have been more drastic. Earlier, that legislative body voted to table an amendment  that would have turned SNAP into a block grant. “We are disappointed that this happened," said Rev. Beckmann,  in reference to the $4.5 billion cut in the Senate version of the Farm Bill. "But we are grateful that the Senate voted down proposals that would cut SNAP benefits further,” said Rev. Beckmann.

This, by no means, is the end of the debate. The Senate measure must still be reconciled with the House version, which could be passed as early as this week.  The two chambers must settle on the new farm bill in the next few months, because the current one expires in September. And the picture does not look pretty. In the 2013 Budget Resolution, the House proposed $134 billion cuts to food stamps over 10 years.  The House Agriculture Committee's proposal for the farm bill would slash $33 billion in SNAP benefits over 10 years.

But let's assume that there are no further cuts, and the funding for SNAP in  the Senate in the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012 (S.3240) holds. The cuts of  $4.5 billion impact 500,000 families and would reduce monthly SNAP benefits by $90.

Impact on New Mexico? 
Until we know the extent of the actual cuts, we won't know the full impact on New Mexico.  According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), an average of 179,000 households in New Mexico participated in SNAP each month in Fiscal Year 2011. The increase has been incremental over the past five years because of the severe economic downturn over the past several years.  The statistics show total for 2011 was almost twice as  high as the numbers recorded for 2007 (about 92,000 households).  Here are more SNAP breakdowns from USDA.

So, with our high rate of food insecurity, the potential is great for the cuts to increase the problem further. Not only would the recipients who are currently eligible see a reduction of their SNAP benefits, but it might be difficult to bring new folks into the program.  According to The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP), nearly 30% of New Mexicans eligible to receive SNAP benefits are not participating in the program.

"The SNAP program has the most resources and the greatest potential to help get food to those who need it," said the NMCLP  "It helps more than one in six New Mexicans put food on the table. Most SNAP recipients are children."

Another concern is that the reduction in SNAP could cancel some of the progress our state has made in reducing food insecurity. "New Mexico has made great strides in alleviating hunger – moving from the state with the seconds highest rate of food insecurity in the nation to the fifth highest – yet, much work remains to be done," said the center on law and poverty.

The NMCLP points out that  SNAP benefits are 100% federally funded and represent one of the most effective economic stimulus tools available. "Every dollar of spending in SNAP benefits generates $1.84 in economic activity. Therefore, increasing access and participation in the program helps support the entire New Mexico economy while putting food on table of hungry New Mexicans," said the center.

Mark Winne, Food Policy Council Program Director at the Community Food Security Coalition, concurs that the cuts would  hurt New Mexico. "We have traditionally had high rates of hunger and food insecurity. New Mexico ranks 12th among all states in the country right now in terms of the levels of food insecurity and hunger," he said in an interview with Beth Blakeman of Public News Service

But Winne, a resident of Santa Fe, said  there are some positive aspects about the 2012 Farm Bill that could benefit New Mexico.  For example, he noted that some of the provisions contained in the legislation have potential to influence local food production by shifting some funding to smaller farmers, localizing or regionalizing the food system.

"It's going to mean more farmers' markets. It's going to make it easier for lower-income people to buy more locally produced food. We could be seeing more locally produced food going into our schools," said Winne.

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