On Nov. 1, many of our neighbors in North Carolina, already struggling to find enough food for themselves and their families, began facing another challenge. A temporary boost in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, usually referred to as food stamps, has been cut.
This means a reduction in monthly benefits for all of the 1.7 million North Carolinians who currently receive SNAP benefits. That is 18 percent of the state’s residents and comes on top of the recent federal government shutdown that saw many of these same families temporarily cut off from WIC (Women with Infant Children) and Work First (welfare) benefits.
For North Carolina, this adds to the many challenges we already face. Our unemployment rate is still among the five highest in the country. We battle Louisiana, among all other states, for the highest rates of hunger among children under age five. More than 15 percent of our residents live below the poverty line, including 24 percent of our children and 10.2 percent of our seniors.
Food stamps are not a support system.They are an assistance program. The average monthly benefit in North Carolina is $121.37 a person, roughly $1.35 per meal. Not a lot you might think, but for many it means filling a prescription and having a meal, paying the heating bill and having a meal or being able to put gas in the car and having a meal.
Food stamps have also become an example of how government programs should work. More than 80 percent of the benefits go to households with incomes under the poverty line. Benefit levels are highest for the poorest. In North Carolina 73 percent of the recipients are families with children, and 27 percent goes to households with an elderly or disabled member. Significantly, 40 percent goes to participants who are in working families.
Benefits can be used only to purchase food and only at authorized retailers. Fraud levels have dropped steadily to under 4 percent. Unlike some public assistance programs, total SNAP benefit payments go up when the economy is bad and drop when the economy improves.
The cuts also come as another blow to our state’s struggling economy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that our state’s share of cuts will total $166 million in the coming year. Economists estimate that every food stamp dollar has $1.70 impact to the local economy. That means a total economic loss to North Carolina of about $280 million in the coming year – money no longer being paid to farmers, grocers and others.
In the coming weeks, Congress will resume haggling over the Farm Bill, which contains funding for future SNAP benefits. The Senate already proposed an additional $4.5 billion in cuts in the coming decade, the House $40 billion in cuts.
For 35 years, the food stamp program stood as an example of bipartisan collaboration. Congressional leaders in its creation were political opposites Bob Dole and George McGovern. It would be a sad blow to that legacy for this Congress to eviscerate it.
Our state’s food banks – and our network of 2,300 partner pantries, shelters and soup kitchens – are the private sector’s largest provider of food assistance. Last year they distributed the equivalent of over 100 million meals to people in need across our state. We do all we can every day to obtain donated food and use business and charitable contributions to supplement the food we distribute. But we cannot do the job alone. Public programs like food stamps are a vital part of the safety net.
North Carolinians can help by donating or volunteering at local food bank. But they can also speak up and insist that balancing our budget and paying our debts do not come at the expense of the least among us.
Hunger is not partisan. It is not even political. It is just about food on the table.
Alan Briggs is executive director of the N.C. Association of Feeding America Food Banks.