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US House farm bill proposes $16 billion in cuts to food stamps

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Local News.
September 11, 2012
 

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As we told you yesterday, the farm bill cuts direct payments for farmers, but shifts a chunk of that savings to crop insurance. But most of the so-called farm bill is actually wrapped up in nutrition programs, most notably food stamps, also known as SNAP. Both the House and Senate proposed billions in cuts to the program over the next five years. That could wipe thousands of Oklahomans off the rolls…

For a state with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, poverty wouldn’t seem to be a problem. But here’s how Torri Christian with the Regional Food Bank describes it.

“Many of our families are struggling. Within the past fiscal year, our network has reported a range of thirty to fifty percent increase in need for emergency food assistance, so the need is definitely there.”

The state’s unemployment rate is about 5%, but it doubles when you include underemployment. That’s the people who want more work, but are stuck in a part time job. The Regional Food Bank tries to get them help through its partner agencies, when SNAP isn’t enough.

“Often children will receive eligibility for free and reduced school meals based on their eligibility for SNAP. School meals are their main source of nutrition, so it’s tremendously important for them.”

In the House farm bill, SNAP would take a 16 billion dollar cut over the next five years.  According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, that would remove nearly 2 million people from the program. Oklahoma Congressman Frank Lucas (R) says that could be reached by reinstating limits on how much cash recipients have on hand. The Obama administration pulled back that rule when the recession hit.

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Inside the Skyline Urban Ministry on Northwest 8th Street in Oklahoma City, Gary sits in the back row. Homeless for about a year, he’s wearing shabby, workingman’s clothes.

“I’d probably be dead right now if it wasn’t for food stamps. They’re highly important. It’s like the one thing I get to look forward to. I get to eat.”

Gary says he used to side houses around Oklahoma. Since he lost his job about a year ago, it’s been a constant search for work. He gets 2-hundred dollars a month.

“My food stamps don’t hit until the 10th, and I run out by the end of the month, so there’s really not enough food stamps for me to make it through the whole month.”

A couple chairs away is Misty, also on SNAP. She has a job, as a waitress. But she also has five kids to take care of, and the father isn’t paying child support…

“I’d tell them they need to try to do it on minimum wage, with 5 kids. And see if they can handle getting cut out.”

Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, it’s all about just making it through.

“I spend 45 to 50 hours a week at work and then trying to get help wherever I can. Most of my time is working and getting help.”

That means sitting for an hour to get a chance to go shopping in the Skyline’s pantry.

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We’ve had multiple requests out for an interview with Congressman Lucas’s office and other Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee, but as of right now, nothing has been scheduled. But Congressman Lucas did speak at a  hearing…

“But in the current economic environment we need to ensure that SNAP benefits are going to those families that truly need support. I’m concerned that the broad based categorical eligibility increases opportunities for waste, fraud and abuse.”

That categorical eligibility is what I mentioned earlier – if you get temporary assistance from the government, you often can also get food stamps without additional tests. One expert I talked to said billions in cuts would affect people who are eligible for the program. That expert says many in the system are simply there because of the prolonged recession, not fraud or abuse or lax income limits.

Representative Henry Cuellar, Democrat from Texas, would answer questions. He voted for an amendment removing the cuts.

“The cuts that came in for SNAP were just too large. We have to find a balanced approach. I think everybody needs to have a little skin in the game.”

He says across the board cuts are okay, as long as they’re fair. So could food banks help even more?

“I just think that at some point, there’s a breaking point, and I feel like a lot of the social services are already at that point. We went from serving maybe 25 families a day to over 17-thousand hungry Oklahomans. That’s ridiculous. That is a ludicrous jump.”

Caroline Lowery runs Skyline’s 8th Street location in Oklahoma City. She says they work to get to the root cause for a visit from each person coming for help. Is it because of an emergency, like health care, or a broken down car? Or are they struggling to just pay the bills every month? For Misty, it’s the latter.

“I was married for a long time and I had support. I feel like my situation fell on top of me and I couldn’t control it. And I’m doing the best I can to make the best out of it, today.”

The House bill is currently stalled, while the Senate has passed 4 billion dollars in cuts. They’ll have to reconcile the two proposals whenever the House bill gets through.

Wednesday, we look at what might happen if September 30th comes and goes without at least a temporary extension of the farm bill. And again, we hope to speak with Congressman Lucas Thursday, as he’s the lead sponsor on the bill.

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