Sustained unemployment, entrenched poverty, and rising food costs have boosted the need for food stamps, which now help feed 15 percent of the U.S. population. That’s one in seven residents, or 47 million people in 22 million households.
In Ohio, those in the federal nutrition assistance program receive, on average, $138 per person, per month. But because of a government utility formula that makes little sense, the amount many people get will decrease, starting in January, by roughly $23 a month per household.
Because the country experienced a mild winter last year, the federal government’s so-called standard utility allowance, deducted from a person’s income when calculating eligibility for food stamps, will also go down, decreasing benefits. The government figures that people spending less on utilities should have more money of their own to spend on food.
Even so, it could have been worse. Under the original formula, which considered the cost of natural gas, benefit levels in Ohio were set to drop about $50 a month.
To its credit, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program, responded to a request on Thursday by Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services to use a different calculation that takes into account the cost of electric heat and propane.
The USDA approved the change Friday, following a story in The Blade last Monday by staff writer Kate Giammarise.
Still, even the smaller reduction will cause hardship for the 869,000 Ohio households — more than 1.7 million people — enrolled in the federally funded program, including working families and children. Some seniors and people with disabilities with low benefit levels could lose all monthly assistance.
The change also will cost Ohio grocers nearly $250 million in business next year. In Lucas County, 46,000 households, or 91,000 people, receive food stamps. Locally, the change could mean more than $10 million a year less.
Those in the program use a debit-like card to purchase food at participating stores. To qualify, families must be at or near the federal poverty level. Food stamps provide the only income for an estimated 6 million people, most of them homeless.
The utility allowance, based partly on last year’s costs, is an unreasonable way to determine current benefits. Many forecasters expect the coming winter to be colder.
The poorest people in Ohio, who already have been pushed over the fiscal cliff, will have to make do, with increased help from many dedicated food banks and pantries.
Given the unwarranted cuts imposed by the utility formula, Democrats and anyone else who cares about alleviating hunger should work hard to ensure that further cuts to the food stamp program don’t become part of a deal to avert the looming fiscal cliff. Congress will scramble for the rest of the year to address the tax increases and automatic spending cuts due in January, which otherwise threaten to plunge the nation into another recession.
Many Democrats have argued, properly, that food stamps should not be touched; others, however, will push for significant cuts to the program. Food stamps will remain a contentious issue in enacting a new farm bill, which stalled in Congress before the election. The 2008 farm bill expired Sept. 30.
Partisans on both sides must remain flexible. Still, with poverty and unemployment rates still high, putting food in the mouths of hungry Americans must remain the highest of priorities.