By Will Livesley-O’Neill
November 4, 2013
On Friday, November 1, the federal government’s budget for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) was hit with an automatic $5 billion spending cut, as funds from the 2009 stimulus act expired. For the 47 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits, around 14 percent of the country’s population, the cut means a reduced monthly allocation for groceries, tighter and more complicated budgeting and cheaper, lower-quality food in the fridge.
For AmeriCorps members and VISTAs like me, who have taken advantage of our own eligibility for SNAP, the cut bumped us down from $200 a month in SNAP benefits, the highest possible amount an individual can receive, to $189. Keep in mind that we’re already lucky to receive the maximum amount – most individuals receiving SNAP qualify for far less than the max (the pre-cut average was $133 a month), and they will also see their benefits cut by $11. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that the cut is the equivalent to the loss of 16 meals a month for a family of three . I’m lucky. Even on a VISTA stipend, I live in a relatively affluent part of Austin (North University/Hyde Park) with easy access to high-quality food and public transportation. While losing $11 in food stamps each month will make grocery shopping a little harder, I won’t experience much financial or nutritional hardship as a result of the budget cut.
There are many reasons why I’ll be more able than most to bear the cost of the SNAP cut, and almost all of them have to do with circumstance. I can afford to live in North University because I came to Austin with a roommate prepared to shoulder a higher portion of the rent and utilities, and because I know I always have a secure safety net, in my upper-middle-class parents, in case my financial situation gets too tough. My office is downtown, meaning I could look for housing in the central core of the city without worrying about a long bus or bike commute. Because I live in the city’s core, I’m within walking or short bus distance to a variety of higher-quality grocery stores, including the organically-focused Wheatsville Co-Op and a large nearby H-E-B. My girlfriend also has a car, which has allowed us to drive out to the new Trader Joe’s store in Rollingwood a few times since it opened last month.
My point is: Not only do I receive more SNAP benefits than most people, but I have the easy ability to use my Lone Star SNAP card at a number of places close to my apartment that sell pretty good food. I can afford to buy more and better-quality ingredients, because I have some extra SNAP spending money each month and because I don’t have kids to feed. It’s not that I eat like a king or anything, and my own shopping and cooking habits could definitely use some work, but I still have a fortunate access to fairly plentiful and decently nutritious food.
So, although I take my food stamp budgeting seriously, I’m far from a representative example of the potentially devastating social effects of the SNAP cut, and I need to remember that. It’s tempting to get caught up in the VISTA idea of experiential poverty in a way that minimizes the experiences of those for whom poverty is a deeply ingrained and suffocating institution.
Just as a hypothetical counterexample to my own story, we can create a fictional family of four who lives in the 78742 zip code, which has one of the lowest median household incomes in Austin at $23,684 a year. Let’s say this family makes exactly the average income for their zip code, which puts their gross monthly income at $1,974, and let’s say that their net monthly income (subtracting deductions for child support, medical costs and other considerations) is a nice round $1,600. The federal government uses this “net monthly income” calculation as the baseline for determining food stamp eligibility amounts.
Using the government’s food stamp benefit computation formula , we then determine 30% of that $1,600 net monthly income, or $480, and subtract that from the maximum SNAP allowance for a family of four, which before Friday was $668. That means this family used to be eligible for only $188 a month in SNAP benefits, and after the cut – which reduced the max family of four allotment to $632 – now receives only $152.
(To briefly inject myself back into this story for comparison, remember that I was eligible for the full $200-a-month allotment without having to go through this kind of income calculation because I’m a VISTA, and that I’m also only shopping for one.)
Our hypothetical family, then, now has $152 each month to spend on groceries for four people. That probably isn’t enough, and they have to supplement their shopping with some money from their regular income. They have to be extremely careful in determining what groceries they can afford to buy, what items will stretch into multiple meals, thatthey can make their grocery budget last for a full month – and they also have a much more limited selection of stores to choose from than I do.
Let’s say this family lives near the middle of the 78742 zip code, on Jet Lane fairly close to Highway 183. The SNAP Retail Locator, a useful map service that shows the locations of stores accepting food stamps, turns up exactly one eligible SNAP location within that zip code, a community garden that offers retail boxes of fresh produce, eggs and a few other farm items. That’s a valuable service offering nutritious food, but a one-month membership that delivers a box of produce once a week costs $152 – coincidentally the exact amount of SNAP money our family receives for that whole month.
Unless our family wants to spend their entire SNAP budget on produce, they need to travel at least one mile to the next-closest SNAP retailer options, stores in the next zip code over that include a Pak-N-Save, a Dollar General and several 7-Elevens, Conocos and other gas stations or mini-marts. To get to the closest store offering a wide selection of food that provides some nutrition, the H-E-B on East Riverside Drive, would take an hour on two different buses.
I’m not breaking any new ground here in pointing out the existence of food deserts in impoverished neighborhoods, or the great difficulty of eating full (not to mention healthy) meals on a very tight budget. And it can also be dangerous to think of poverty in the abstract like this, using only statistics and hypothetical examples – real families are much more complicated and creative than this hard-and-fast thought experiment allows for.
But it’s important for me to keep stuff like this in mind in these next months as a VISTA, shopping for organic food a few blocks from my apartment with my still-ample $189 SNAP budget. I might have it harder than many people in my demographic, but millions of families around the country now have to do much more with much less – and with even less than they had before Friday.