Food stamp cuts affect struggling Kentucky residents

jmadden@herald-leader.comNovember 8, 2013 

Fourteen dollars a month gets Jeff Howard a shopping cart filled with canned beans, potatoes and some bread.

Howard, 57, receives this money — commonly called food stamps — from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. He typically tries to fill in the gap through assistance from a subsidiary of God's Pantry Food Bank at Broadway Christian Church.

"This is the only way I can live," Howard said.

Howard, an injured U.S. Army veteran with a worn out back and slight limp, also receives a Social Security check. His monthly bills total about $800 and often leave him without money for food. There is about $100 left from that check to spend for the month; most of it goes toward gas for his Chrysler PT Cruiser.

"They don't integrate your car insurance and car payment," Howard said.

Howard is among the 47 million people who are affected by government cuts to the SNAP, which is said to be the largest wholesale cut in the program since Congress passed the first Food Stamps Act in 1964.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services issued a release that said the decrease in benefits was based on the expiration of the American Recovery Reinvestment Act. When signed in 2009, the stimulus money boosted every participating household's benefit by 13.6 percent — a two-person household would have received $44 more each month. Now that stimulus funds have been cut, a two-person household will likely see a $20 monthly decrease in SNAP benefits, the release said.

Overall, the nation's food stamps program cost $78.4 billion in the 2012 fiscal year, according to the Agriculture Department. Officials have said the reduction will save the government about $5 billion next year.

Jason Dunn, director of the Division of Family Support for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said $1.3 billion in food stamp benefits were issued in Kentucky to eligible families in 2012-2013.

About 420,000 households received an average benefit of $265 per month, Dunn said.

The cabinet relayed information about cuts, which were effective Nov. 1, to recipients in October through a news release, Dunn said.

"Anytime benefits are reduced, there is going to be a negative reaction," Dunn said. "SNAP recipients often count on every dollar of benefits in order to help stretch their food budget, reserving other income for vital living expenses such as housing and utilities."

Malcolm Ratchford — executive director of the Community Action Council, an advocacy group to combat poverty — said the cuts are hurting those it was meant to help most.

"Folks who are hit the hardest are those who are already at the bottom," he said. "People think folks are getting rich off food stamps, they're not. You have military families on food stamps, seniors and folks who are disability."

Ratchford said there is a lot misconception that lead to this type of cut, but wishes it wouldn't come from safety net programs like food stamps.

"Poverty is just not about financial resources ... the majority of the folks we serve are low-income," Ratchford said. "Ninety percent of the folks we see need God's Pantry food referral form. They always identify that as a need. They need food."

Veronica Hernandez, a single parent and mother of three, said she has seen her food stamp benefits decrease to $540 from $630.

"It wasn't too long ago we were homeless," she said. "It was hard enough. I don't know what it's going to be like now."

Hernandez and her daughter were one of 25 families who visited Broadway Christian Church Wednesday night.

The cuts have caused Kentuckians like Howard and Hernandez to look to food banks and nonprofit organizations for help.

"I'm hoping for more churches and donations to help," Hernandez said. "We already don't do breakfast. I can't afford it."

Hernandez said her family has had to give up milk and bread, because she is has pennies left after she pays her rent. She is on a fixed income, paying $725 for rent, and only has enough for gas and her telephone.

Usually, food stamps hold families over until the last week of the month, but that was not the case earlier this week.

Cuts have already affected families, said Elise Speed, a volunteer at Broadway Christian Church. At the start of the month, the pantry remained open nearly an hour after closing time to help families.

"It's just November 5, and we have 38 clients today," she said. "They are not going to have enough food for the month."

God's Pantry CEO Marian Guinn said food purchased by Kentuckians would be reduced by $42.9 million. The food bank provides goods for 300 nonprofits and 50 counties in eastern and central Kentucky. She said 60 percent of client households use SNAP.

"Many Kentuckians don't have enough resources to adequately nourish themselves and their families," said Guinn. "These cuts will make their circumstances more urgent."

Earlier this week, Mark Pawlowski was taken to the pantry by his veteran advisor. He waited over an hour to hear his number called.

Pawlowski, 62, who said he has faced several urgent circumstances over the past couple of years, was recently homeless before the veteran assistance stepped in. The vet said he was "down to four tablespoons of peanut butter and molded bread" when he applied for food stamps. Pawlowski said he had not eaten for three days before seeking the food pantry assistance. He is appreciative of what he received.

"It's helping out a whole lot," he said. "I'll make it last for the rest of the month."

Much like Pawlowski, Vicki Harmon also is trying to make ends meet.

Harmon, 60, is in a program through Community Action that offers job training. She works four hours a day and makes $7.25 an hour at the Charles Young Center. She wore a smile when inviting reporters indoors.

Her food stamps were cut to $189 from $200.

"It stretches everything," she said. "I have to cut down on certain things."

Harmon has had decide which medicines and food to buy. She has done away with some cleaning products and other basics.

Harmon said she worked for Fayette County for 20 years, but did not receive a pension. She said she has been having financial problems for about 10 years.

Harmon said she visits food pantries and local churches nearly three times a week for food. She admits she's struggling, only has enough money to the ride the bus everyday, but says her faith keeps her going. "I'm not going to give up."

The New York Times contributed information to this article. Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety

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