Food-Stamp Benefits Will Drop 5% as 2009 Boost Expires

Congress is poised to let a temporary boost in food-stamp benefits end later this week for more than 47 million Americans.

The extra Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program aid, which subsidizes purchases by lower-income families, was included in the 2009 economic-stimulus law. Food-stamp spending reached a record $78.4 billion in fiscal 2012 as annual average enrollment climbed 77 percent from 2007, government data show.

Unless legislation is enacted before Nov. 1 -- and none is scheduled for a vote in Congress -- benefits for a family of four will fall by $36 a month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At maximum benefit levels in the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia, that works out to 5.4 percent less for that family of four.

“It’s not going to get any easier for any of our families on Nov. 1,” said Sarah LeStrange, a spokeswoman for the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas in Austin, which serves 300,000 people a year. “They don’t need that money less.”

The drop in benefits is frustrating, LeStrange said.

“We can’t tell people to call their representatives because it’s too late,” she said.

Representative John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, has introduced a bill, H.R. 3108, that would extend the aid increase through fiscal 2016. The measure, filed on Sept. 17, has 55 co-sponsors, all Democrats. It hasn’t been scheduled for committee action.

‘Tall Order’

“It’s a tall order to see how it gets reversed, but we’re heartened by the fact that there are a number of members of Congress who are sponsoring the bill,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, which advocates for policies to eradicate hunger in the U.S.

She said Congress could still reinstate the benefits if it misses Friday’s deadline: “There is time to undo the cuts if there is the political will.”

Representative Michael Conaway, a member of a House-Senate panel working on a farm-subsidy bill that includes food stamps, H.R. 2642, said he expects no debate on reviving the higher level of benefits.

Ending the increase is settled and “it’s the law,” said Conaway, a Texas Republican.

Enrollment Figures

Monthly enrollment for the aid peaked in December at 47.8 million and was 47.6 million in July, according to the most recent USDA data. In 2007, about 26.3 million Americans received food stamps at a cost to taxpayers of about $33.2 billion, the data show.

Retailers such as supercenter operator Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and grocery discounters such as Aldi Inc. and SuperValu Inc.’s Save-A-Lot chain benefit from the program, according to a Bloomberg Industries analysis.

The House-Senate committee considering the larger legislation, known as the farm bill, is scheduled to meet for the first time on Wednesday. The two sides are furthest apart on funding food stamps.

Democrats, who control the Senate, would cut $4 billion over 10 years. Republicans, who run the House, would take out $39 billion, or almost 10 times the Democrats’ figure, over a decade. The House bill also would require recipients to work or get job training, let states make drug testing a condition of eligibility and set food aid on a different authorization timeline from farm subsidies, a move to divorce food stamps from the farm bill entirely.

Though Democrats are now leading calls for the 2009 increase to be extended, the benefits were cut back to pay for other legislation by Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, according to a report from the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institute that examines the effects of fiscal policies on low-and moderate-income Americans.

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