Recent federal proposals to slash billions of dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are something that U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D, IL-8) says she takes personally.
“I was hungry as a child,” the congresswoman said at a Monday roundtable discussion in Arlington Heights on hunger and SNAP cuts.
When Duckworth was in high school, her father lost his job and was unemployed for about fours years. During that time, Duckworth’s family relied on SNAP, or food stamps. But even with SNAP assistance, Duckworth said she often had to save items from her school breakfast and lunch to avoid going hungry during the weekend.
“It just disturbs me that in the greatest nation in the world, one of the richest nations on the face of the earth, we have kids who go to bed hungry ... we have seniors who go to bed hungry,” Duckworth said. “We have adults who have to choose between medicine or food, and that’s just simply wrong.”
SNAP is facing various threats to funding that would deliver a hard blow to the more than two million people in Illinois who rely on the food assistance program.
After the U.S. House passed a SNAP-less farm bill in July, House Republicans leaders said they plan to address the $80-billion-a-year program separately when Congress comes back from its August recess. The proposal is expected to include a $40 billion cut to SNAP over 10 years. The Senate passed its own farm bill in early June that includes a comparatively modest $4 billion SNAP reduction over a decade.
Duckworth said the House bill would likely pass along party lines if it were brought up for a vote in the chamber. At that point, the House and Senate SNAP proposals would have to be sent to a conference committee to resolve the funding disagreements. It is Duckworth's hope that the conference committee would restore some of the proposed SNAP cuts.
The GOP-led House’s plan to shave $40 billion from SNAP appears to be more about sending a message that those enrolled in the program are somehow undeserving of their benefits than anything else, Duckworth noted.
Those who buy into a notion that SNAP recipients are "lazy" likely haven’t had to count how many bread slices are in loaf at the grocery store to see if $5 in food stamps will be able to cover their family's meals for a week, Duckworth stressed.
“SNAP is not this extremely generously-funded existence of sitting and eating Bonbons on the couch,” said Kate Maehr, executive director of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. The average SNAP recipient in Illinois receives $34 a week in benefits, she noted.
State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook) also attended the roundtable discussion to hear from those who are working to combat hunger in Illinois.
Nekritz sits on the Illinois General Assembly’s pension conference committee that is working on a fix for the state’s nearly $100 billion pension crisis, which among many things threatens funding for various organizations working to fight hunger and poverty in the state.
Nekritz didn’t provide specifics about the committee’s progress, but she did note that “everybody at that table ... remains very committed to getting something significant done."
"If I felt that were not true, or there was a lack of sincerity on behalf of any of the caucuses, I wouldn’t be saying that publicly and to you,” Nekritz said.
The 10-person bipartisan committee is coming together “in good faith” and negotiating, she said.
More than a dozen organizations working to tackle hunger and poverty were represented at Monday's discussion. Those at the table said Illinois state legislators need to be doing more to stand up for their constituents and fight against cuts to SNAP. They also pressed Duckworth and Nekritz to advocate for raising the federal and state minimum wages.
Others at the talk called out the belief among some Washington lawmakers that if SNAP were slashed, private charities and food banks could simply pick up the slack.
Maehr said that’s not a viable option. There is no way the country's food banks, pantries and soup kitchens could meet any additional demand, she stressed.
Those who want charities to ramp up their efforts likely do not understand the scale of the issue, Maehr noted.
For example, during Illinois' 2013 fiscal year, 665 million meals for Cook County residents were provided by SNAP, while the Greater Chicago Food Depository provided 55 million meals, Maehr said. The Greater Chicago Food Depository is also serving 70 percent more people than it did five years ago.
“I think that the work that we do is critical, but we are also strapped already,” Maehr said. “We can’t make the cuts that are being proposed.”
SNAP recipients will also be impacted by a tightening of resources starting this November when temporary benefit increases as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act ends.
As Progress Illinois reported last week, the two million SNAP recipients in Illinois will see their collective benefits cut by $220 million once the temporary increase expires on October 31. The across-the-board cuts mean the average SNAP benefit during the 2014 federal fiscal year will provide less than $1.40 per person per meal.
Those facing poverty in Illinois simply can’t endure any more cuts to SNAP and other social safety net programs, according to those at today's roundtable discussion. A record number of people in Illinois, even in the seemingly affluent suburb of Arlington Heights, are unable to make ends meet, they said.
A new analysis from the Brookings Institution shows the poverty rate in Duckworth’s 8th congressional district, which covers parts of Cook, DuPage and Kane counties, increased from 5.3 percent in 2000 to 9.2 percent during the 2007 to 2011 time period.
The Jewish Child and Family Services office in Arlington Heights encounters families every day who are struggling with poverty and hunger, said Lili Gray, the organization's director of adult, family and child services. About 52 percent of the organization’s suburban clients live 200 percent below the poverty line, Gray noted.
“We need people to stand up and fight to defend (against) the cuts,” Maehr said. “We need legislators in Springfield saying this is important to the state of Illinois, and we need all [to make an] effort right now on staving off the cuts.”