Food & Drink A stamp of disapproval

If Congress slashes food-stamp benefits, hundreds of thousands of Americans could go hungry

Last week, Lorraine Garay visited a local food-stamp office to apply for benefits that would help her feed her family: a husband, twin 5-year-olds, a 2-year-old, and a second set of twins due in February.

Yet, Texas Health and Human Services officials reportedly told Garay that her husband earns too much — $600 a week — for the family to receive anything but the most meager food-stamp allotment: $80 a month for a family of five, soon to be seven.

According to federal guidelines, a family of five must earn less than $2,450 a month to receive food stamps. A family of seven must earn less than $3,156. With their current family size, the Garays barely qualify for food stamps, but could receive additional benefits when the twins are born.

Those benefits hinge on how Congress hashes out the Reconciliation Bill, a jumble of funding reductions for social-service programs to help offset $50-70 billion in tax cuts (most of which will benefit the wealthy). If Congress passes the bill, currently in conference committee, hundreds of thousands of Americans, including the Garays, could lose their food-stamp benefits.

The original House version of the bill, which would cut funding for Medicaid, student loans, and other social services, proposed to slash $844 million from the federal food-stamp program, disqualifying an estimated 300,000 recipients. Among those affected by the cuts would have been the poor who receive non-cash benefits such as vouchers for child-care, housing, and utilities.

Food-stamp recipients at risk

The number of food-stamp recipients in Bexar County has increased 26 percent over the past two years. Statewide, the number has increased by one-third.

Legal immigrants under 60 and new U.S. immigrants are among those who could lose food-stamp benefits if Congress passes a proposed budget bill. Statewide, 100,000 legal immigrants receive food stamps. These figures show the number of food-stamp recipients in Bexar County and Texas. It’s unknown how many could lose their benefits.

Texas food-stamp recipients
2005: 2,513,734
2004: 2,329,550
2003: 1,884,734

Bexar County food-stamp recipients
2005: 186,161
2004: 175,738
2003: 147,009

Legal immigrants receiving food stamps in Bexar County
2005: 3,800
2004: 3,700
2003: 3,000

Source: Texas Health and Human Services Commission

Under pressure from House Democrats, last week the cuts were reduced to $796 million and the provision regarding food-stamp recipients who receive non-cash benefits was stripped. Yet, 225,000 Americans could still lose their food stamps. The Republican-majority House passed the bill last week by a 217-215 vote; Democrats voted against it because of the deep cuts in social services.

The Senate version of the budget-cutting package doesn’t cut food-stamp programs.

The bill is in conference committee, where the House and Senate will try to resolve the differences between the versions.

Critics point out that the bill penalizes the working poor, including families like the Garays. According to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, more than 70 percent of Texas families with children who live below the poverty line have at least one parent who works.

Garay said losing her family’s food-stamp benefits, “would affect me big time. We don’t have any groceries now.”

She said state officials told her that her food-stamp allotment was small because her twin sons attend school and receive free lunches. Yet, under the proposed cuts, the Congressional Budget Office estimates 40,000 children would lose their eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches.

Democratic U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, who represents part of San Antonio in the 28th District and sits on the House Budget Committee, is “appalled” by the food-stamp cuts, according to a spokesman.

Residents in South Texas Congressional districts could be especially impacted by the cuts, which could toss 70,000 legal immigrants off the food-stamp rolls. According to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, 3,800 legal immigrants live in Bexar County and receive food stamps.

Michael Kans, spokesperson for U.S. Representative Charlie Gonzales, a Democrat from San Antonio, said a tweaked version of the bill grandfathers legal immigrants age 60 and older and immigrants who have applied for citizenship when the bill is enacted, allowing them to receive benefits. Still, legal immigrants must have lived in the U.S. seven years before qualifying to receive food stamps.

In a prepared statement, Gonzalez said he opposes the cuts in food-stamp benefits and other social, medical, and educational services. “These funding cuts will make life harder for working Americans who are struggling to feed their families, afford health care, and help their children pay for college,” he said. “At a time when more Americans are falling into poverty and energy costs are soaring, the President and House Republican leadership have chosen to increase the financial burdens of American families.”

With winter approaching, the Garay’s energy bills are increasing, adding to the family’s financial burden, which includes an $800 monthly mortgage.

“Right now we’re struggling quite a bit,” Garay said, adding that the family eats at their relatives’ houses. She also supplements her grocery bills with WIC benefits, a federal nutrition program for women and their children up to 5 years old. “It puts a burden on them and we have to be dependent on other people.”

By Lisa Sorg

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