According to the latest figures from the Census Bureau, 15% of the US population lives in poverty. The figure’s even worse for children: 22% of those under 18 are living in households with incomes below the federal poverty level. The US economy is officially out of the recession, but an estimated 95% of all the income gains since 2009 have gone to the 1% of the US population with the highest incomes. For millions of people, food stamps (technically, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) make the difference between buying groceries and going hungry. Yet Congress has allowed the larger food-stamp allotments contained in the 2009 economic stimulus package to expire, which means poor families across the US will struggle even more than usual to keep themselves fed.

SNAP helps one in seven Americans. The $5 billion in cuts to the SNAP program over the next year will reduce the maximum monthly benefit for a four-person household by $36 – which may not seem like a big deal to those of us who spend freely on groceries, but will mean hunger at the end of the month for many who rely on SNAP. The House has passed a bill that will slash another $39 billion from the program over the next ten years, largely by making 3.8 million current food-stamp recipients ineligible for benefits. These cuts will not only harm the families who rely on SNAP, but cause strains on local grocery stores and food banks.  In the New York Times, Kim Severson and Winnie Hu report:

The cuts are also hurting stores in poor neighborhoods. The average food stamps household receives $272 a month, which then passes into the local economy.

At a Food Lion in Charleston where as many as 75 percent of the shoppers use food stamps, managers were bracing for lower receipts as the month wore on.

At a Met Foodmarket in the Bronx, where 80 percent of the 7,000 weekly customers use food stamps, overall food sales have already dropped by as much as 10 percent.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be that fast,” said Abraham Gomez, the manager. Losing that much revenue could mean cutting back hours for employees, he said.

Alexandra Ashbrook and Patty Stonesifer write in a Washington Post opinion piece:

At this time of year, many fortunate Americans recognize and respond to hunger with generous donations to food drives, including Thanksgiving turkey drives. This generosity is wonderful, and the nation’s network of pantries and food banks is a precious resource, but we need to keep its reach in perspective. The SNAP program provides about 20 times as much help as the entire charitable food network. That means when SNAP benefits are cut by 5 percent, charitable organizations have to double their contributions across the nation to keep up.

In reality, there is no way that charitable efforts can quell the ongoing hunger of Americans who are now expected to live on SNAP benefits averaging less than $1.40 per person per meal. Churches and food banks will be the first to say that they simply cannot cover recent and proposed cuts. In the District, Martha’s Table’s food budget is $1 million for the entire year. We cannot possibly make up for $15 million in cuts.

We’ve written before about the SNAP Challenge / Food Stamp Challenge, in which people accustomed to spending more than $189 a month on groceries (the maximum benefit for a one-person household without the added stimulus amount) try to live on a food-stamp budget. People who take the challenge report difficulties affording fresh fruits and vegetables and frequent feelings of hunger and irritability. It can be hard to focus at work, and hard to get in the recommended amounts of exercise. People used to picking up a prepared meal on the way home from work can have a hard time finding time to cook dried beans and rice into a modest dinner. US Representative Barbara Lee organized fellow members of Congress and others to take the challenge over the summer, when the House was considering legislation cutting SNAP. Politico’s Tal Kopan covered their effort:

“Doing this challenge is something that I choose to do … but for millions of Americans, this is how they get by, this is how they work to avoid being hungry, and often, that’s a challenge that they’re not even able to meet,” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said. “Standing in line at the grocery store, it’s relatively few items in my cart, and calculating how much I think they’ll cost only to learn that I was off by a little bit, which necessitated putting back a couple of items and leaving with even less — it’s just really difficult to do once, I can only imagine how excruciatingly difficult it must be to that every single week.”

The campaign is being led by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a former SNAP recipient herself who is doing her third year of the challenge. Other high-profile SNAP challenge participants have included New Jersey Senate hopeful Cory Booker, who did his week last winter.

Lee says she hopes the effort will call attention to the necessity of SNAP.

“I was on food stamps for many years raising two boys, trying to go to college,” Lee said. “I would not have been in congress if it were not for that bridge over troubled waters, so to speak.”

The issue goes beyond a moral issue, participants say. Lee points out that for every $1 spent with SNAP, $1.70 is returned to the economy.

In addition to the immediate suffering and economic losses from a reduction in SNAP benefits, the cuts will likely do long-term damage. More than 70% of SNAP benefits go to households with children, so it’s inevitable that cuts to the program will affect children. Inadequate nutrition stunts children’s growth and development, and food insecurity is associated with decreased school achievement, which affects long-term earning potential and overall wellbeing.

Cuts to food stamps don’t produce true savings. They fall most heavily on our country’s most vulnerable people, many of them children. If we want health and prosperity for all, we have assure people have enough to eat – but right now, Congress is doing the opposite.