New cuts to food stamps jeopardize recovery for all

By Jacqueline Y. Collins

State Senator, 16th Legislative District (Chicago)

Op-Ed

By most measures, the Great Recession is finally over. Housing markets are recovering, and unemployment is down in most communities. But while economic indicators may be music to the ears of everyone from investors to executives, this year’s report of the Illinois Commission on the Elimination of Poverty sounds a discordant note that cannot be ignored.

In 2008, about 607,000 Illinoisans lived in extreme poverty, defined as having an income below half of the poverty line ($9,545 for a family of three). Today, almost 770,000 of our neighbors — more than three-quarters of a million — experience extreme poverty. Only in the past year has this number decreased slightly. This degree of need, difficult to imagine in our land of excess, disproportionately affects children, seniors, minorities and persons with disabilities.

Against this backdrop, the expiration of the 2009 federal stimulus funds on November 1 means that those who rely on SNAP, or food stamps, to stave off hunger will see a sharp decrease in their benefits.

Between 2001 and 2011, the number of employed SNAP recipients tripled. The recovery has added 100,000 jobs in Illinois, but the new openings are predominantly low-wage. Unable to earn enough to put food on the table and cut off from other social programs such as transitional aid and homelessness prevention that have fallen victim to draconian budget cuts, large numbers of the working poor now rely on food stamps for daily nutrition.

Yet SNAP is far more than a food security program. It is not a handout but a hand up to the working poor, who tend not to stay on food stamps for long. It is also one of the nation’s most economically efficient social programs, with every $5 spent on SNAP benefits generating $9 in local spending.

Before the latest cuts took effect on November 1, the average SNAP benefit for a single adult in Illinois was $35 per week. Last month, I took the “SNAP Challenge,” using $35 to buy everything I consumed in one week. The experience was humbling and eye-opening. I discovered how difficult it is to purchase fresh produce and other healthy options on such a limited budget. I gained an understanding of the kinds of wrenching trade-offs people living in poverty face every day.

Yet, starting this week, hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers will try to get by on much less: $36 less per month for a family of four. The U.S. House has already voted to reduce SNAP’s funding by an additional $39 to 40 billion over the next ten years. I am urging Congress to support an economic recovery that lifts people out of poverty rather than consigning them to dependence on an increasingly inadequate safety net. Please join me.