SAN JOSE, Calif. — The explosive growth of Californians resorting to food stamps is a stark example of the Great Recession’s lingering economic devastation. The program’s size has nearly doubled over the past five years with almost 4.2 million low-income residents now receiving assistance.
That safety net could be in jeopardy for hundreds of thousands in the state — either by losing their food stamps entirely or seeing cuts in their monthly benefits — under a proposal being debated in Congress.
House Republicans, who narrowly passed a measure last week that would slice $40 billion over the next 10 years from the federal program, say their aim is not to hurt society’s most vulnerable. Rather, they believe this is a much-needed overhaul to a bloated entitlement that has grown to $80 billion a year, and primarily will encourage able-bodied adults to get back into the workforce.
Senate Democrats, who have proposed more modest trims of $4 billion, counter that booting an estimated 3.8 million people off food stamp rolls nationally at a time of continued high unemployment would be disastrous for those dependent on the government for food assistance.
No matter the intent of the GOP cuts, local residents are alarmed.
“People will go hungry,” said Christian Luna, Sacred Heart Community Services’ public benefits program manager. “This is going to affect real people, every day, as they try to feed their kids.”
The end of the federal fiscal year is Monday, and any legislation will require political compromise, which is in short supply in Washington, D.C.
Food stamps, which are part of the farm bill, always are a lightning rod in the heated debate about how to best address poverty. That’s especially the case with the current mood of hyperpartisanship. Caught in the middle are a record 47 million people — nearly one in seven Americans — who receive aid. And populous California has the most people in the program, which is known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and here as CalFresh.
At the same time, the state has one of the lowest rates of participation, with about 55 percent of eligible Californians receiving food stamps. That’s because California historically has made it harder than other states to access benefits.
While the process has been streamlined, partially explaining the jump since 2008 when about 2.3 million Californians received food stamps, the real driver to the surge has been the recession and slow recovery.
“It would be really devastating because it affects working-poor households, seniors and children,” said Kerry Birnbach of the California Food Policy Advocates. “This is not only about putting food on the table. The program also acts as economic stimulus as people spend the money.”