Food stamp cuts kick in starting today

By Christina Calloway

PNT senior writer

Thousands of Eastern New Mexico residents who receive food stamps will see a decrease in their benefits starting today as a boost to the federal program from the 2009 economic stimulus has expired.

According to the Agriculture Department, that means a family of four receiving food stamps will start receiving $36 less a month.

Nineteen percent of Curry County’s population of nearly 50,000 and 17 percent of Roosevelt County’s more than 20,000 residents received food stamps, according to New Mexico Health and Human Services.

With an increase in sign-ups within the last few years due to a struggling economy, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is now a whopping $80 billion-a-year program.

“The 2009 stimulus package included a bump up to help them get through the economic recovery,” said Jennifer Talhelm with the U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., press office.

Udall, already concerned with the 20 percent of New Mexicans who will be affected by the decline in benefits, joined 36 other senators to urge his House counterparts to reject any further cuts to the program.

Congress has begun negotiations on a farm bill, which encompasses the SNAP program.

Five-year farm bills passed by both the House and the Senate would cut food stamps, reductions that would come on top of the cut that will go into effect today. But the two chambers are far apart on the amounts.

House Republicans proposed to cut SNAP by an additional $4 billion annually and tighten eligibility requirements. The House bill would also end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults without dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely and allow states to put broad new work requirements in place.

The Senate farm bill would cut a tenth of the House amount.

The Congressional Budget Office says as many as 3.8 million people could lose their benefits in 2014 if the House bill became law.

According to a press release from Udall, more than 78 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children, and 22 percent of participants are in families with elderly or disabled members.

Benefits average $1.42 per individual, per meal, Udall said. He’s arguing that one more layer of cuts will only strengthen the struggle for those trying to make ends meet.

“SNAP provides a safety net that allows our most vulnerable population to fulfill their fundamental human need for food,” Udall said. “This program helps struggling families to put groceries on their tables when faced with financial troubles. Nearly half of those who receive SNAP benefits in New Mexico are children, and cuts to this program pose a threat to their health and their futures.”

When the House and Senate finalize their versions of the farm bill, a conference committee will meet where people are to represent full House and Senate and the group will be tasked with coming up with a final version of the bill.

“One of the things they’re negotiating is what the (SNAP) funding level should be,” Talhelm said.”

Farm-state lawmakers have been pushing the farm bill for more than two years, and Wednesday’s conference negotiations represented the opening round in final talks. If the bill is not passed by the end of the year and current farm law is not extended, certain dairy supports would expire that could raise the price of milk. Farmers would start to feel more effects next spring.

“It took us years to get here but we are here,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said. “Let’s not take years to get it done.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.