December 22, 2014

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Food stamp stimulus money expires, benefits cut 5.5 percent

Martin Digby, a driver at Second Harvest Food Bank, unloads bread into the warehouse in Lorain on Thursday. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

Martin Digby, a driver at Second Harvest Food Bank, unloads bread into the warehouse in Lorain on Thursday. STEVE MANHEIM/CHRONICLE

Those who need it most will have to make due with less.

At midnight, federal taxpayer stimulus money that was approved in 2009 for food stamps in response to the recession expired. The expiration cuts monthly distributions by 5.5 percent.

For a mother with two children, the reduction means about $29 less per month. For a family of four, it’s a cut of about $36 a month, to $632.

The cuts will increase pressure on food banks and food pantries, which have seen record demand since the recession and tepid recovery, according to Juliana Chase-Morefield, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio. About 44,000 of the 1.8 million Ohioans receiving food stamps are in Lorain County. In June, 34,000 people used food pantries served by Second Harvest, she said.

Many are food-stamp recipients who use pantries when their food stamps run out. Chase-Morefield, who has been involved with food assistance since 1998, said anxiety among those running food banks and pantries is the highest she’s seen.

“We don’t have endless supplies of food,” Chase-Morefield said. “We wish we did.”

Chase-Morefield said for some, the cuts may mean choosing between whether their children eat or rent is paid. About half those using food stamps are children and about 41 percent work or are in households where someone works, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program.

Vicky Shaw and Aaron, Olson, volunteers at Second Harvest Food Bank, sort through donations.

Vicky Shaw and Aaron Olson, volunteers at Second Harvest Food Bank, sort through donations.

The reduction comes in the wake of cuts in food stamp eligibility and funding. In January, able-bodied people between 18 and 50 without children not working 20 hours per week or enrolled in a job training program will be cut off from food stamps in 72 counties, including Lorain County.

In September, the Republican-majority House of Representatives passed a bill cutting food stamps by $39 billion between 2014 and 2023. The 5-percent cut would reduce the number of food-stamp recipients from 48 million to 34 million by 2023, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

One of those voting yes was U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, who represents a portion of Lorain County. Gibbs said he expects a compromise bill being negotiated in a House-Senate conference committee will be completed by year’s end.

The Democratic-majority Senate bill cut food stamps $4 billion. Gibbs said he expects the final cut will be between $10 billion and $20 billion. “The people who need it are going to get it and not people that are abusing the system,” he said.

While Gibb’s cited “quite a few reports of abuse,” the USDA said just 1 percent of benefits involve fraud, down from about 4 percent in 1993. Gibbs said food stamp cuts reduce the deficit predicted by CBO to drop to $642 billion this year, the lowest since 2008. Nonetheless, the cutting has received bipartisan criticism.

“There seems to be a war on the poor,” Gov. John Kasich told The New York Times on Monday. “If you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, called the cuts “unforgivable” saying they will hit children and the elderly particularly hard.

“I can’t think of a more cruel act than to take food away from people,” said Kaptur, who represents Lorain. “It’s as low as it gets.”

Kaptur and Chase-Morefieldurged Republicans who voted for cuts to visit a food pantry to better understand clients’ needs.

“It sounds easy on paper to cut money out of food stamps,” Chase-Morefield said. “But these aren’t numbers. These are real people.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.