The cut was triggered by the expiration of the stimulus spending Congress approved in the depths of the Great Recession. But it is unlikely to be the last; in Washington, the House and the Senate are trying to reconcile bills approved in each chamber that would reduce food stamp spending by billions more dollars.
Friday’s benefit reduction was meant to be timed to a brightening economy, yet many Americans remain stuck in poverty.
“I think it’s a horrible thing,” said Najuah Mudahy, 30, another resident of the Culver City shelter. She is a food stamp recipient who works two jobs, as a clerk at a shoe store and a hostess at a California Pizza Kitchen. They bring in $9 an hour. Mudahy said that before the end of every month, she runs out of money to feed her 3-year-old daughter, even on dinners of canned soup.
Food advocates say there are millions of other people in similar predicaments, and they implored Congress to stop targeting the program for budget trims.
Even before Friday, government statistics show, food stamps fell short of keeping recipients well nourished. In California, the monthly allocation for a family of four with no income has dropped to $632. The benefit varies around the country, based on the cost of living.
About 14 percent of Americans are on food stamps. The program has grown rapidly in recent years, attracting the attention of deficit hawks, who note that it now costs taxpayers $75 billion a year.
The legislation passed by the Republican-led House could lead to nearly 2 million Americans losing access to the program, according to congressional analysts. It would cut $40 billion over the next 10 years.
The cut approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate would reduce the program by $4 billion over the next decade.
Obama administration officials said the reductions that took effect Friday are certain to result in missed meals for those enrolled. For 7 million Americans, food stamps are their only source of income, according to Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The cut “is a huge challenge for those households,” he said. Local food banks, Concannon said, are not positioned to serve as backstops.
“It would be like asking someone running a marathon with a 100-pound pack on their back to take on another couple hundred pounds,” he said. “They don’t have the capacity to do this.”
Advocates across the country said they are alarmed.
In Texas, about 4 million people receive food stamps each month, a dramatic increase from 2.5 million five years ago. The latest cuts will drain $411 million from the state’s economy, said Celia Cole, chief executive of the Austin-based Texas Food Bank Network.
“That’s a big hit for the state,” she said.
While many Texans have bounced back from the recession, she said, “the number of people living in poverty has not changed — things haven’t gotten better for them yet.”