Threats to state and federal food stamp programs are coming at a time when demand is the highest it’s ever been, and when access and funding is already inadequate for immigrant families in Washington state.
The number of Washington residents receiving food stamps through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has more than doubled over the last five years. That amounts to more than one million people receiving food stamps in Washington — about 16.5 percent of the population — according to the Food Research and Action Center’s latest count in July.
Those numbers follow a national trend. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported earlier in November that 47 million people, or more than 19 percent of the U.S. population, were receiving food stamps in August — an all-time high.
Linda Stone, food policy director at the Children’s Alliance, said the food stamp program is the country’s No. 1 defense against hunger and must be protected from budget cuts.Particularly at risk are immigrant families in Washington who are ineligible for federal benefits that rely on the State Food Assistance program, Stone said.
The program was created in 1997 by the State Legislature after Congress voted to deny food stamps to most legal immigrants. Since that time, Congress has restored food stamp benefits for children, elders and refugees.
Three groups who currently cannot receive federal food stamps and who are eligible for State Food Assistance are green card holders in their first five years of residency in the U.S., People Residing Under Color of the Law (PRUCOL) — a mixed bag of immigration statuses including crime and abuse victims assisting police — and citizens of countries with compacts of free association with the U.S. Currently, these countries are Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.
And while the program’s recipients (about 11,000 families) comprise only 1.5 percent of the total number of people in Washington on food stamps, the benefits they receive are hardly adequate, Stone said.
State Food Assistance recipients get about half the amount of benefits as those on federal food stamps, Stone explained. Since July 1, 2012, families who had received an average of $114 per month saw their benefits drop to $56 per month.
“The Children’s Alliance and many other organizations are working to restore State Food Assistance benefits to the same amount as food stamps when the Legislature returns to Olympia in January,” Stone said.
Meanwhile, the growing number of food stamp recipients are facing challenges already created by cuts to local office staff at the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
“[The staff shortage] has caused some problems in getting through on the telephone to caseworkers with important information and has increased waiting times in some offices,” Stone said. “Some offices have staff who speak languages other than English who can help immigrant families. Others make use of language telephone lines for translation. If you can bring someone with you that you trust who can translate, that is probably the best option.
Unfortunately, lack of enough bilingual workers can cause delays at local offices or on the phone.”
Stone said those in need of a translator can call the Family Food Hotline at 1-888-4FOODWA (888-436-6392) to be connected with a translator and have questions answered.
Unfortunately, for the majority of food stamp recipients — households that include a child, an elderly person or a disabled person — the growing need for food stamps has pitted lawmakers against the program itself.
Every five years, Congress has the opportunity to rewrite the food stamp law as part of the Farm Bill, a major piece of legislation that contains farm subsidies, crop insurance and many other programs. SNAP is the largest section of Farm Bill cost.
“There are currently two Farm Bills in Congress — one in the House and one in the Senate — and they both propose to cut the SNAP program by between $6.4 and $16 billion,” Stone said. “Both of these cuts would have a major impact in Washington, as they are restrictions on state options to streamline the program that DSHS has taken.”
Stone said lawmakers must realize that the food stamp program is meant to adjust to the changing needs of the public.
“The media has picked up on policymakers condemning the food stamp program as being ‘too big,’ or ‘growing too fast,’” Stone said. “The program is meant to grow when the need grows, and then shrink when fewer people need benefits. This cycle has played out in all the recessions since the program became a national program in 1975. The Congressional Budget Office is now predicting that the number of food stamp recipients will decrease beginning in 2013.”
Karen Jackel, a food bank coordinator with the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, said that, while there have not yet been tremendous cuts to food benefits of the people she serves, cuts as little as $5 and $10 can mean that a family goes without vegetables for a week.
“I think lawmakers should know that food stamps are very important,” said Jackel, who had also lived on food stamps for a time. “Every check makes a big difference. Already, the dollars are stretched so far trying to pay for housing on such a low income. It’s extremely important that people get their food.”
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