A bill that cuts the federal food stamp program passed the U.S. House last week and is on its way to the Senate.
Under the bill, nearly four million low-income Americans would be dropped from the food stamp rolls — that’s almost $40 billion worth of cuts over the next ten years.
Jordana Gustafson looks at some of the people in Oregon who are using this program now.
At the end of every month this small waiting room at Snow Cap food pantry in East Portland is packed. That’s about when people have run through their food stamps and are looking for a way to put food on their tables.
Jasmine Tweedy and her four-year-old daughter Zoie choose food at the Snow Cap food pantry in East Portland.
“They’re busy today — extremely busy. It’s better to get here right when they open,” Tweedy says.
Tweedy currently has no income — she’s living off a small amount of savings and hoping to get on welfare. She says the $280 in food stamps she gets at the beginning of each month doesn’t last very long.
“She’s a growing four-year-old, so she pretty much eats me out of house and home. By the end of the month, we have to come here because there’s nothing left in our fridge,” Tweedy says.
It’s unclear exactly who would be affected by the proposed cuts. And some lawmakers say the current version will never make it through the Senate.
But Oregon’s Department of Human Services estimates the bill would drop 90,000 Oregonians from the food stamp program.
The bulk of these cuts would be to unemployed adults with no dependents. But low-income children, seniors, and veterans could also be affected.
Tweedy’s nervous that this could include her. She’s been a stay-at-home mom since Zoie was born. She’s now getting divorced and looking for work, but she hasn’t had any luck.
“Lots of different places — everywhere, from gas stations and fast food, restaurants and everything under the sun, but I go every week. Four hours a day. I go to the library, get online. I’m on foot, turning in applications, job leads, resumes. Anything right now,” Tweedy says.
Tweedy is one of some 8,000 people who file through this waiting room each month. Snow Cap used to serve about 4,000 people a month, but since 2008, the number has doubled.
Even as economists report signs of an economic recovery, food pantry director Judy Alley says Snow Cap’s numbers remain steady.
“Here, no, at the bottom end of things, there is no recovery. I’m not arguing with the economists who say there is one. There probably is, somewhere, but not here. I mean, why do we still have these numbers?” Alley asks.
The state of Oregon says more than 20 percent of all Oregonians participate in the federal food stamp program known as SNAP — nearly double the number since 2006. In Salem today, more than 25 percent of households rely on SNAP, according to the U.S. Census.
Food stamp participation in rural areas like Jefferson County and Deschutes County also is high.
According to Oregon SNAP program manager, Belit Burke, Oregon’s food stamp rolls have grown because of outreach to enroll people who are eligible in the program. But the rolls also grew because the economy tanked.
“People needed help. We’ve had a lot of grant programs, food banks, pantries. They just couldn’t support everybody who had need. So you saw people coming to access the program who would have never accessed it in the past,” Burke said.
Burke says losing food stamp benefits could be very difficult for Oregonians who remain unemployed and under-employed.
“I think that folks are trying really hard to get those living wage jobs, and there’s just not enough of them out there,” Burke says.
But House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, who spoke during floor debate last week says, “There are still jobs available in America. They might not be the job you want to stay in for the rest of your life, but it means you need to go and actively participate.”
Sessions urged lawmakers to pass the bill in order to address the growing number of SNAP recipients.
Republican Congressman Greg Walden of Oregon — who also voted for the bill — says it closes loopholes and puts an end to abuses in the system.
A U.S.D.A. report last month said SNAP has one of the lowest fraud rates of all federal programs at one cent on the dollar. And D.H.S. in Oregon puts food stamp fraud at a half cent on the dollar.
But Walden points to a 2012 report by the Inspector General that questioned the USDA’s ability to track fraud.
Back at Snow Cap food pantry, Kimberly Williams says she’s heard rumors about cuts to food stamps, and she hopes they won’t affect her.
“We manage to make $600 a month feed six people for a month. Not many people can do that, and it’s not easy to do that and eat well given health problems we all have,” Williams says.
Williams has been searching for work for two years — since she lost her job as a certified nursing assistant. Her unemployment benefits have run out. She and her adult son live on his disability check, food stamps, and on the money they earn each week donating plasma.
Williams says she’s looked everywhere for a job, even retail.
“But yet I’m too old for retail mostly is what I get told. They don’t say that, but you can tell by the look on their face that they think I’m too old,” Williams says.
Williams keeps trying, but “After two years, there’s not a lot left to look at. I just keep trying the same places over and over again and hoping they’re desperate enough to give me a chance.”
The Senate is expected to take up the food stamp issue. But for now, Congress is in a dispute over the government’s debt ceiling.