Cutting the safety net; Who will help in hard times?
Job losses in the U.S. were unprecedented during the Great Recession, which began in December 2007 and technically ended in June 2009. Since then, the economy has been growing, but the recovery continues to pass many people by. As December 2013 ended, there were still 1.2 million fewer jobs than at the start of the recession. For many of the long-term unemployed (in December, 37.7% of the 10.4 million unemployed had been looking for work for 27 weeks or longer) the prospect of finding a job remains discouraging. Deepening the crisis for the unemployed, Congress last year declined to extend Emergency Unemployment Compensation, which ended on January 1. Furthermore, Congress refused to extend the expanded food stamps program created during the recession. It expired on November 1, 2013, cutting benefits by $5 billion across the board (an average of 5.5% for recipients) for an estimated 48 million people.
Over 91% of households receiving food stamps have incomes below the poverty line, and 55% goes to households with incomes below half of the poverty line (about $9,500 for a family of three). Almost 50 million people in the U.S. are poor, and another 50 million are deemed to be “near poor,” not quite in poverty but struggling. For most of these, whom the reported economic recovery has bypassed, times are tough indeed. It’s easy to say, “Get a job,” but in these economic times, there are not enough jobs to go around, and minimum wage jobs leave many families living in poverty. What a time to be cutting the safety net!
Now come the latest cuts.
The House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have passed a new Farm Bill with a new round of cuts—nearly $9 billion over 10 years—to the food stamps program, now called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP for short. The White House says the president will sign the legislation. For new SNAP applicants, the cuts will take effect this spring. Current recipients will see the reductions phased in starting this summer.
With this Farm Bill the new law of the land, organizations that provide food and other services to the poor are very worried. And here’s the big question (answer, unknown): who will pick up the slack once these newest cuts kick in? In our local communities in the Upper Delaware River Region, charitable organizations report that demand for services by the poor already is greater than donations can support.
“The need is greater than we’ve ever seen before,” reported Herb Bauernfeind, vice president of IOU, the Interfaith Outreach Center in Callicoon. “We do the best we can, but there are more requests than we have funds, and even though we have more funds this year than ever before, still the requests are so much higher… We have to turn people down frequently,” he added.
Karen Warren at Sullivan County United Way (SCUW), which helps the poor with food and shelter, echoed the same concerns. “We are having a hard time,” she said. Unlike some charitable organizations that receive government support or grants from foundations, United Way exists solely on the funds it can raise.
In Monticello, where SCUW has its offices, Warren pointed out, “Just look around at how many places are out of business, and the ones that are left are struggling themselves,” making it difficult to raise funds at the levels needed. “At the end of the year, our emergency food pantry was full [after Christmastime donations], but now it’s nearly empty,” she said.
“Every day is an emergency for these people,” she continued. “Life has become an emergency for Sullivan County’s poor.” She closed the conversation by pointing out that 27% of Sullivan County’s children are living in poverty.
A hundred miles away, at Food Bank for New York City, president and chief executive Margarette Purvis said last week, “We’re already telling our partners—soup kitchens, churches and food pantries—that they need to step to their efforts to raise money and secure more food.”
Stepping up our efforts locally seems to be an increasingly inevitable necessity, unless we want to live knowing we have hungry and food-insecure neighbors. If donations are down, we must ask ourselves, what can we do both as individuals and as communities? Beliefs about what the government’s role should or should not be matter little in light of the congressional decision to cut food stamp funds for the next five years. The reality of this will filter down into our communities, and who will pick up the slack if we do not?
Building stronger, more resilient communities for a more secure and more sustainable future is essential. We at The River Reporter believe addressing hunger in our communities is a good place to start.