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Cutting the safety net; Who will help in hard times?

February 5, 2014

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.