While Congress considers slashing funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, directors of food pantries in Arkansas say they already are seeing increased need in their communities.
"I think we served about 350,000 pounds of groceries to about 12,000 people last year, and this year I know it’s up significantly," said Janie Smith, director of Jackson House, a food pantry in Hot Springs. "Normally I get about 20 new cases per month. In September I got 134 and in October it was 140-something."
On Nov. 1, SNAP benefits across the country were reduced because of the expiration of a temporary increase provided through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In Arkansas, the average reduction for the 505,000 people who receive SNAP benefits was $10 per person per month, according to the state Department of Human Services.
The average monthly SNAP benefit in Arkansas in October was $121 per person and $271 per household, DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb said.
Workers at food banks and food pantries in the state say that even before the reduction took effect, the news that it was coming had people turning out in larger numbers for meals. They say a House proposal to reduce total SNAP spending by nearly $40 billion would have an impact they don’t want to contemplate.
"That just can’t happen. It just can’t happen," said Nancy Conley, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.
For decades, SNAP funding has been included in each reauthorization of the federal farm bill, but in June conservative House Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, rejected a proposed farm bill that included money for SNAP. In July, the House approved a bill to reauthorize farm policies without considering food stamps, and in September the House approved a separate nutrition bill that would reduce funding by $39 billion over the next decade.
The Democratic-controlled Senate has proposed cutting SNAP funding by $4.1 billion over 10 years.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, are members of a House-Senate conference committee charged with forging an agreement. The panel has a Dec. 13 deadline.
Webb said the Senate proposal would not affect Arkansas because it targets a SNAP program that is not offered in the state. Some provisions in the House bill also target programs not active in Arkansas, including one that facilitates SNAP enrollment for participants in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, she said.
One program the House version targets that is in use in Arkansas allows states to obtain waivers from a rule that limits benefits for unemployed adults without dependents to just three months out of every three years.
"When there was a downturn in the economy, most if not all states got a waiver of that rule so that people who lost their jobs when the economy tanked were able to stay on longer. The House version proposes to eliminate those waivers," Webb said.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., has estimated that this change would cause 4 million Americans and 43,000 Arkansans to lose access to SNAP benefits.
The House version also would cut spending for nutrition education by $308 million over the next decade. Arkansas received $1.9 million this year for nutrition education; Webb said it is unknown how the proposed cut would be divided among states.
Conley said the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance is stepping up its fundraising efforts and food drives in an effort to keep up with the increased need at the food banks and food pantries it serves. She said the House bill would have a severe effect on Arkansans who are unable to find work because of the sluggish economic recovery.
"Unemployment is still above 7 percent, and when people can’t work, people can’t eat without some assistance," she said. "If we can start recovering a little bit more, putting more people back to work, then they won’t need food stamps, they won’t need SNAP benefits."
Arkansas’ unemployment rate for October was 7.5 percent, compared to the national rate of 7.3 percent, according to the state Department of Workforce Services.
The Hunger Relief Alliance offers classes on preparing healthy meals and shopping for food on a limited budget. Conley said nutrition education is important because low-income people tend not to buy healthy foods.
"If you’re trying to feed a family on $4 a day, you’re not going to be buying too many fruits or vegetables. You’re going to be buying cheap things that are fatty and high in carbohydrates and sugars," she said.
In a Nov. 22 speech in Little Rock, Cotton said SNAP spending needs to be curbed.
"(SNAP is) a program that’s doubled under Barack Obama and almost quadrupled over the last decade," he said.
Bob Porto of Little Rock, a Tea Party activist, said it is appropriate for government to help people in need, but if government spending on public assistance is not reined in, "sooner or later we’re not going to have the money."
"When that happens, and you’ve got a whole dependency of a lot of people on subsidies or entitlements, once they have to pull that back, you’re going to see riots in the streets," he said.
Brett Kincaid, outreach director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said Arkansas’ population is especially vulnerable to cuts in food assistance.
"One in five households in Arkansas struggles against hunger," he said. "They’re considered food insecure. And the national average is 1 in 6. That means quite simply that those households do not know where their next meal is coming from."
Kincaid said Arkansans who are unable to find work and are already struggling with a reduction in SNAP benefits would not have many alternatives under the proposed budget cut.
"It’s kind of hard to tell somebody to go get a job if there are none available," he said.