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Tuesday, December 06, 2022

States reduce benefits of food stamps despite price hike

DES MOINES, Iowa ( Associated Press) — Month by month, more of the nearly 40 million Americans who get help to buy groceries through the federal Food Stamp Program are seeing their benefits, even as the nation sees the biggest drop in food costs in decades. Struggling with big growth.

Pay to low-income individuals and families is falling as governors end COVID-19 disaster declarations and exit an ongoing federal program that made their states eligible for a dramatic increase in SNAP benefits Also known as food stamps. The US Department of Agriculture began offering increased benefits in April 2020 in response to rising unemployment following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.

The result is that depending on the politics of a state, individuals and families in need may find themselves eligible for varying levels of help to buy food.

Nebraska took the most aggressive action anywhere in the country, ending four months of emergency benefits into the pandemic in a move in July 2020. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts said it was “essential to show the rest of the country how to get back to normalcy.”

Since then, nearly a dozen Republican-led states have taken similar action, with Iowa being the most recent place to cut gains this month. Benefits will also be cut in Wyoming and Kentucky next month. Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Tennessee have also reduced benefits.

Republican leaders argue that the additional benefits were only to help temporarily put people out of work from the pandemic. Now that the virus has subsided, he says, there is no need to offer higher pay at a time when businesses in most states are struggling to find enough workers.

But the added benefits also help families in need during times of skyrocketing food prices. Recipients under the program receive at least $95 per month, but some individuals and families are usually only eligible for small benefits that can receive hundreds of dollars in additional payments each month.

If the federal government decides to end its public health emergency, the entire program will come to a halt, although the Biden administration has so far not indicated its intention to do so.

For Tara Kramer, 45, of Des Moines, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ decision to end emergency payments from April 1 meant her monthly SNAP benefit fell from $250 in March to $20 in April. Kramer, who has a genetic disorder that can cause acute pain, said the extra money enabled her to buy healthier foods that made her feel better and helped her lead a more active life.

“My heart sank,” Kramer said. “All the memories from before the emergency allotment come back.”

Alex Murphy, a spokesman for Reynolds, said the additional benefits were always there to help those who had lost jobs because of the pandemic, adding, “We have to return to pre-pandemic life.” Murphy reports that Iowa has more than 86,000 job openings listed on the state’s unemployment website.

But Kramer said she hasn’t been able to work and even moving out of her apartment can be a struggle at times.

Vince Hall, who oversees public policy for the nationwide food bank network Feeding America, said eliminating additional benefits overlooks the reality that even as the pandemic rages on food banks. Demand has not declined.

Wages are rising in the United States and the national unemployment rate fell to 3.6% in March, but those gains have been offset by an 8.5% increase in inflation compared to a year ago. Food items are growing the fastest, leaving many families unable to buy enough groceries.

“The COVID pandemic is giving way to a hunger epidemic,” Hall said. “We are in a real, real conflict.”

Feeding America, which represents 200 food banks, reports that demand for food has increased as these organizations are seeing a decrease in individual donations and an increase in food costs. The organization estimates that the country’s food banks will spend 40% more to buy food in the financial year ending June 2022 than last year.

For people like 51-year-old Annie Bailon of Omaha, Nebraska, Ricketts’ decision to stop participating in the program reduced the SNAP payments she and her son received from about $500 a month to $41. Both have health problems and cannot work.

“From the middle of the month till the end of the month, people have no food,” Ballan raised his voice angrily. “It is all the fault of the governor. He says he loves Nebraskans, that Nebraskans are wonderful, but he has cut our food.”

Hall said demand for food banks will only increase as more states reduce their Snap payments, which typically provide nine meals for every meal served by food banks.

Valerie Andrews, 59, of St. Charles, Missouri, said the SNAP benefits she and her husband rely on fell from $430 a month to $219 when Missouri’s additional payments ended in August 2021. Andrews, who is disabled, said she tries to budget carefully and get food from the food pantry on a regular basis but it is difficult.

“We’re barely making it paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “It gets pretty rough most of the time.”

Food banks and pantry executives said they would do their best to meet the increased demand, but there’s no way they can completely offset the decline in Snap profits.

Matt Unger, director of the Des Moines Area Religious Council Network of Food Pantries in Iowa’s capital city, notes that pantry costs for a 5-ounce serving of chicken have risen from 54 cents in March 2019 to $1.05.

“The cost is just going through the roof,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Grant Schulte contributed to this story from Omaha, Nebraska.

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