In Congress, the land of posturing and pandering, a tussle is going on in a House committee over the Farm Bill, and before you drift off, the bill is of intense import to many a farmer and non-farmer because a huge chunk of its spending is dedicated to the food stamp program.
A move is afoot to put the screws to the federally funded entitlement, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. Apparently, there are some in the Trump administration and among Republicans in Congress laboring under the illusion that food stamp recipients don’t work. Or, that they don’t work enough. The notion persists that giving the very poor roughly $130 per month per recipient for food encourages a mentality that saps the spirit of self-sufficiency and replaces it with sloth.
I have no idea whether this is a genuinely held belief or a political calculation. I’ll just point out here that most of the people who rely on food stamps in the country — and Colorado is no different — are kids. They together with seniors and people who are disabled make up two-thirds of recipients. They are not expected to work for benefits. The general rule, a few exemptions aside: Food stamp recipients between 16 and 59 who can work must do so to receive and keep benefits. Time limits for benefits apply to able-bodied adults without children unless they work a certain number of hours a week.
The big problem isn’t that people aren’t working enough. It is that they are not earning enough.
“Are we being punished for being poor? Is that what’s happening? ” asks Meighen Lovelace, 42, a full-time farmer in the Roaring Fork Valley and advocate for food and farm policy who is raising two young children. Because she is both a farmer and a SNAP recipient she keeps a close eye on the Farm Bill, and last year worked as an intern for the National Farmers Union in D.C., where she attended the bill’s hearings. Lovelace has turned to food stamp benefits on and off for the last 10 years, as her income rises and falls. “The work requirement feels like it comes from a place of punishment because I have a job and I work really hard.”
Andrea Fuller, in her 40s, also has relied on SNAP periodically over the last decade. She has two young children and runs three small businesses from her Denver home. She echoes Lovelace. “It’s not that we are not working hard enough. It’s not that we are not trying.” In her family, her son’s health issues, among other things, have limited her ability to work regular hours outside the home. She also doesn’t have other family members to turn to when times get tough, she says.
This particular battle over this particular entitlement program is not new. It’s a favorite partisan piñata. It’s resurfaced now in part because Republicans are running the show and because the Farm Bill is up for its twice-in-a-decade reauthorization. It’s stalled in committee due to the fight over food stamp cuts and stricter work requirements for able-bodied adults, though what exactly is in the bill is unclear right now.
What is known is that the President’s 2019 budget called for cutting more than $200 billion from the program over the next decade. It calls for replacing a portion of food stamps with prepared food boxes, an idea that both infantilizes adults trying to make ends meet and that drew immediate pushback from grocers who fear lost sales. Families with children make up most SNAP households, and in Colorado the average family benefit is about $400 a month, money that goes straight back into the economy.
The President’s budget is little more than a wishlist, but the message was clear and has put on edge Colorado’s community of people who grapple with the consequences of hunger.
Both Fuller and Lovelace speak of days when their incomes were just high enough to disqualify them for food stamp benefits but still too little to keep the family fed without struggle. They were still poor, just not poor enough. In that in-between place are sleepless nights and anxiety, constant headaches and lost concentration. In that place, all choices are hard choices.
“Do I pay my heat bill or do I buy groceries,” Lovelace says. “Do I fill my prescription or do I buy groceries?”
“Do I buy toilet paper or do I buy milk?” Fuller says, describing a time when she needed to budget $50 a week for all groceries, food and nonfood. She’d go to the store with the calculator app open on her phone and total everything she put in her basket, pasta, carrots, shampoo, “and when I got to that $50 limit, I would have to start deciding ‘What do I prioritize? Do I buy shampoo or milk? …You have to prioritize everything when you are down to almost nothing at all. Food, shelter, heat, do I have enough gas in the car to take the kids to school?”
As Hunger Free Colorado’s CEO Kathy Underhill told me earlier this week: “Hunger is one of those things that I call an ‘everything issue.’ Everything that you actually care about, hunger is probably tied to it.
“So, if we care about education in Colorado, hungry kids are not going to be great learners. If we care about being the healthiest state or the cost-containment of health care, hungry people are not the healthiest people and people that are eating low-cost food are not the healthiest people … If you care about economic stability, do you think hungry workers are great workers? I would say skip lunch and dinner tonight and see how you do.”
This swinging of the Congressional guillotine overhead comes at a critical moment in Colorado. Should cuts materialize, advocates say it would be a step backward in a state that is already behind the curve.
Colorado is among the worst states in the country at enrolling people in SNAP. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, it ranked 45th in enrollment.
Break it down as the Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger does: In 2015, Colorado had about 5.5 million residents. Of those residents, about 15 percent had incomes low enough to qualify for SNAP. Only 8.9 percent were enrolled. (“Low enough” means no more than 130 percent of federal poverty level, or about $26,500 for a family of three.)
Part of the problem is structural. Colorado is one of just 10 states that administers its food stamp programs at the county level, a far more expensive way of doing business than running a statewide program, says the USDA. By that measure, according to a 2016 USDA report, Colorado had the seventh-most expensive program in the country.
So, a state that spends more than almost all others administering the SNAP program is also a state that is enrolling fewer people than almost all others.
Underhill says tackling hunger historically has never been a state administrative priority. “So, for the governor, for the head of human services, we’ve never really had someone come out and say, ‘This is really important to us.’”
Jennifer Banyan, who, like Underhill, has worked for many years in both the private and public sectors on food access and nutrition, says another factor is that hunger is hard to discuss.
“Hunger feels so deeply personal and none of us know how to talk about it,” she says. “Most folks don’t know how to talk about it with their patients or their neighbors or their clients. I’ve talked with people all over the state and they say they don’t know the language of how even to broach this conversation that would meet folks in a way with dignity.
“I would say in Colorado we have not had this conversation because we don’t know how, but we are starting to and that’s the best thing.”
Last summer, the Colorado Health Foundation brought together more than 100 individuals and organizations to discuss the issue. We’re talking people experiencing hunger, food banks, school districts, hospital systems, community foundations, county human service departments, grocers, people from the governor’s office and the Colorado departments of education, health care and financing, human services, public health and environment. That gathering led to the Blueprint to End Hunger, a first-ever report issued in January. Banyan coordinated the development and research for the document, which sets its sights on ending hunger in the state in five years.
“The system has not necessarily been set up for collaboration between all the sectors that need to be involved,” Banyan says. “It’s not just a county human service issue. It’s not just a state human services issue. It’s a public health crisis. It’s a health and hospital system issue. It’s an education issue.”
The Blueprint is focused on what it will take to address the fact that one in 10 Coloradans experiences chronic hunger. One recommendation is to increase SNAP enrollment through more community outreach and application assistance.
In some quarters, Colorado’s low enrollment may be a cause for congratulation, evidence of that romanticized Western spirit of self-reliance. These quarters tend to be occupied by those who do not necessarily understand just who is going hungry in this state. Or what hunger’s costs are down the line.
They may not understand that self-sufficiency is the sum of an equation that factors in not only hard work and merit but access to quality education and good jobs and wages and health care and affordable housing.
Some years back, Fuller had what she called a “kitchen-floor moment.” She was struggling to pay her bills and she was low on food. She fed her kids before she fed herself. She was blinded by headaches. She says she couldn’t stop thinking about food. Fuller had turned to food stamps before, after her son was born, but the voices of her rural upbringing nagged in her head, telling her that turning to the government was not an option and that those who did were lazy. She saw what some of her friends and colleagues said on social media about people on public assistance and she wondered what they would think of her. She worried her children would be ostracized.
Fuller sat on her kitchen floor and examined the contents of her pantry, “and it was so bleak, so empty, and then I looked in the refrigerator and it was empty and right then I said, ‘I can eat less and I can go hungry, but I can’t do that to my children.’”
These, she says, are the situations that some people do not understand. These are the consequences unconsidered. “What I want to say to policy makers is, ‘Why don’t you ask us?’ Ask us: ‘Why are you on SNAP? Why are you using it?’
“We will tell you about our lives and we will tell you how it helps us and how, if we didn’t have it, our children, our loved ones, we ourselves, would literally be going hungry.”