Columbus area food stamp recipients fear $4 billion cuts

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 21, 2013 

The food stamps cuts passed by Congress in September took effect on Nov. 1.

Claire Robinson gets $250 a month in food stamps, but it only buys three weeks of groceries.

The south Columbus resident stretches the dollars by avoiding expensive stores in her low-income neighborhood. She travels by bus to a Walmart in north Columbus and then pays a cab driver $20 to get the groceries home. Some days, she just doesn't have the funds.

So last week, Robinson showed up at a local feeding program to get food for herself and her 9-year-old daughter. It was provided by one of her neighbors at Elizabeth Canty Homes, a public housing complex on Cusseta Road.

"I have to wait until the 23rd to get my food stamps," said the 38-year-old woman who says she's disabled. "I can't even imagine what I would do without them."

Robinson's household is one of about 23,000 in the Columbus metropolitan area on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps. The number mushroomed between 2009 and 2012, when the percentage of local homes on food stamps jumped to 20 percent from 15 percent, according to statistics released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut $4 billion a year from the federal program, raising concerns among families, social service organizations and anti-poverty advocates about what it would mean for low-income families in Columbus and across the nation.

If approved by the Senate, the bill would allow states to require able-bodied adults with a child at least 1 year old to work 20 hours a week. Food stamp recipients could be tested for drugs, and able-bodied adults without dependents could lose a waiver that allows them to receive food stamps indefinitely.

But the measure backed by conservative Republicans is expected to die in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and President Barack Obama threatened to veto if it crosses his desk.

Congressman Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, said the changes would have a devastating impact on communities in his district, which includes south Columbus. In official remarks submitted to the House, he described the potential consequences.

"I represent a district comprised of some 29 counties, 26 of which are sparsely populated and rural," he wrote. "Of the 29 counties, at least 15 or more have over 20 percent of their populations participating in the SNAP program. These counties have an average poverty rate of 29 percent, and an unemployment rate of 12.7 percent. Of the 68,474 SNAP recipients in these 15 counties, as many as 20,542 current recipients of SNAP could be in jeopardy of either reduced benefits or a loss of benefits altogether."

In the Columbus metro area, the poverty rate jumped to 19 percent from 17 percent from 2011-2012, according to the U.S. Census website. But the changes were not statistically significant. The July unemployment rate for the metro area was 9.2 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website.

The Columbus metro area consists of Muscogee, Harris and Marion counties in Georgia, and Russell County in Alabama.

Living in their shoes

Tiffani Stacy, a SNAP recipient who distributed the food at Elizabeth Canty to Robinson and other residents, was disappointed in the House vote. She and her 15-year-old son, Jhacori, led a SNAP Challenge in April to spread community awareness about the hurdles low-income families face on food stamps.

They challenged elected officials, community leaders and residents to live on $5 worth of groceries a day, much like the average family on SNAP. At least 20 people participated, including Columbus Councilor Bruce Huff.

On Fridays, Stacy and her son continue to feed low-income families with meals they get from TSYS. Last week, they served macaroni and cheese, barbecued tilapia, chicken Florentine, mixed vegetables and squash casserole. About 15 children showed up at Stacy's front door.

"I understand the concept of wanting able-bodied adults to work," she said in response to the House vote. "But at the same time I think they overlook that there are people who are working but they still have to receive food stamps because they're not making a living wage. And if you want them to make a living wage, you're going have to raise the minimum wage to where they can provide for all of their utilities and plus be able to buy food.

"I just think there is a huge misunderstanding as to why people receive SNAP benefits, how they really work, and a lot of that has to do with individuals who don't know anybody on SNAP, who have never been on SNAP, and who never asked how it works outside the theory that's on paper."

Making tough decisions

Kathy Hacia, 54, is a disabled Pine Meadows resident who helps Stacy pick up the food from TSYS. She is a former registered critical care nurse. She has been disabled since injuring her back on the job in 2003. She now has vision problems, diabetes and other health issues.

Hacia said she gets $16 a month in food stamps, but she has figured out ways to stretch it.

"I can get a good package of chicken, some rice, potatoes and stretch it," she said. "Financially things have been difficult for me. If it wasn't for food stamps and programs at local churches, I would have to decide, 'Do I eat? Or do I take my medication?' "

Hacia said it seems as though Congress is always picking on poor people, and wondered why lawmakers don't cut their own benefits. Though the bill seems to spare disabled recipients, she's still concerned about her future with the program.

"Once they start with able-bodied adults, they're going to eventually come to disabled people to make ends meet," she said.

Turning to other programs

Belva Dorsey, executive director of the Enrichment Services Program, said she has many concerns about the bill. Her organization, which covers eight counties, conducted a 2012 Comprehensive Community Assessment and found that more than one-third of households experiencing hunger are disabled and/or retired persons, and the remaining 46 percent have working members in the household.

"Many working class citizens do not make enough money to support their families and often times have to turn to public and/or private assistance programs to make ends meet," the report said. "With the recent shift in the economy and the rise in unemployment, there has been a rise in individuals seeking social service programs."

Dorsey said it's unclear how the House bill would impact the Columbus area if it becomes law.

"I would want to know how they define able-bodied," she said. "Because if we're talking about seniors, then that's going to have a big impact on our seniors who have limited income."

Dorsey said it could also have a detrimental effect on able-bodied adults who have difficulty finding work and low-income households with children.

The local Head Start program recently received the largest federal funding cut in its 47-year history, which means many families are left without childcare for their children.

"Some of our citizens are able-bodied and unemployed and they might not meet the work-related requirements," she said. "When we look at parents with children, I would want to know how do they define work activities. If job related-activities means doing a job search, then it may not have tremendous impact. But if it does not include a job search and we have able-bodied individuals who are diligently seeking employment and have not been successful getting a job anywhere, then we're going to have more people that are going to fall into the food insecurity category.

"We are going to have people who are hungry, people who are malnourished. So we could actually end up paying more in other areas."

Babbs Douglas, executive director of Feeding the Valley, said it could mean more people at area pantries.

"When food stamps are cut, that means the gap has to be filled in other ways," she said. "This past year, we provided over 6 million pounds of food across a 14-county area. So, I imagine we could see a dramatic increase depending on how much the cuts are and that sort of thing."

Robinson, the disabled SNAP recipient who lives at Elizabeth Canty, said it's understandable why some lawmakers would want to cut back on food stamps. She said there are some people who abuse the system. But most families on the program need the assistance, she explained, and she hopes Congress takes that into consideration.

"Before they make the cuts, they should look at the household income to make sure no kids are going to go hungry," she said. "It could put a strain on a lot of families."

Related stories:

House votes to cut $4B a year from food stamps

Bob Simpson: Food stamps, farm subsidies need an eye

Conn. Rep. DeLauro hits GOP cuts to food stamps

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