But the food-stamp program is now set to downsize in the weeks ahead. There's a big automatic cut scheduled for Nov. 1, as a temporary boost from the 2009 stimulus bill expires. That change will trim about $5 billion from federal food-stamp spending over the coming year.
And that's not all: The number of Americans on food stamps could drop even further in the months ahead, as Congress and various states contemplate further changes to the program. Here's a rundown:
1) The end of the stimulus boost. First up is a big automatic cut to SNAP scheduled for Nov. 1. This is happening because the food-stamp program was temporarily expanded in 2009 as part of the Recovery Act. That bill spent $45.2 billion to increase monthly benefit levels to around $133, on average.
That bump will end on Friday, and benefits will shrink by around 5 percent on average. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a short report calculating what this will mean for individual households:
So, for instance: The maximum monthly benefit for a family of four will drop from $668 per month down to $632. The maximum monthly benefit for an individual will drop from $200 per month to $189. ("The cut is equivalent to about 16 meals a month for a family of three based on the cost of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s 'Thrifty Food Plan,' notes CBPP)
Those snips add up: The end of the stimulus program will reduce federal food-stamp spending by $5 billion in 2014. Every state will be affected: California, for instance, will see a $457 million drop in spending over the upcoming year, while Texas will lose $411 million as a result.
2) Congress could cut food stamps even further. The stimulus lapse isn't the only cut on the horizon. This week, the House and Senate will resume their haggling over a five-year farm bill. The main point of contention, as before, is over how much to pare back the food-stamp program.
The Senate approved a farm bill that would make only minor changes to the food-stamp program, saving $4.5 billion over 10 years (compared with current law).
House Republicans, meanwhile, went even further, voting on a bill that would cut $39 billion from the program over 10 years, largely by tightening restrictions on who could qualify for food stamps:
The House bill would remove 3.8 million people from the food-stamp rolls over the upcoming year by making two big changes:
-- First, it would reinstate limits on benefits for able-bodied, childless adults aged 18 to 50. These recipients would only be able to collect limited benefits — up to three months over a three-year period — unless they worked more than 20 hours per week or enrolled in job-training programs. (States are currently able to waive these latter requirements when unemployment is high.)
Conservatives have argued that reinstating the work requirements will encourage adults to find jobs more quickly. Liberal critics have countered that employment opportunities are still scarce in many parts of the country — many Americans will simply lose their food aid without finding work. This change would remove an estimated 1.7 million people from the food-stamp rolls.
-- The second big change is that the House bill would restrict states' abilities to determine a person's eligibility for food stamps based in part on whether they qualify for other low-income benefits. This is known as "categorical eligibility" and has generally allowed families just above the poverty line to receive food stamps if they have unusually high housing costs or are facing other hardships.
This second change would take another 2.1 million people off food stamps in 2014 and then remove an additional 1.8 million people per year for the next decade.
It's unclear how many of these cuts will actually get passed into law, however, since the House and Senate still have to figure out how to reconcile their two bills.
3) New state restrictions. Even if Congress doesn't pass further cuts to the program, some states could act on their own to restrict eligibility.
In 2013, 44 states qualified for federal waivers that would allow more able-bodied adults to receive food stamps if unemployment in the area was particularly high. House Republicans want to curtail those waivers as part of their farm bill. But even if the House GOP doesn't get its way, some states are planning to stop asking for waivers anyway.
Kansas already let its waiver expire at the start of October, a change that could affect some 20,000 residents. The Oklahoma state legislature passed a bill to add a similar work requirement to its food-stamp program. Ohio is planning to enact similar restrictions starting Jan. 1, and Wisconsin will follow suit next July.
So even if the cuts in the House bill fail, many states could act on their own to shrink the number of food-stamp recipients.
-- Why are 47 million Americans on food stamps? It’s the recession — mostly. Note that the Congressional Budget Office expects the number of food-stamp recipients to decline by 14 million in the next 10 years as the economy improves. That's without any further policy changes.
-- For those wondering about abuse or fraud in the program, here's a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report (pdf) on "trafficking" in the food-stamp program. Between 2009 and 2011, about $858 million worth of food stamps, or just 1.3 percent of all benefits, were traded at a discount for cash.
-- Here's an in-depth narrative look by Eli Saslow at the town of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, where one-third of the population is on food stamps.