ST. LOUIS — Gov. Jay Nixon filed a proposal with the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules that requires able-bodied 18 to 50-year-olds to be employed or in an educational or training program in order to receive their food stamp benefits.
If the proposal is granted, that group of individuals would abide by the SNAP guidelines before the recession and American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. There are about 58,000 Missourians who could be affected if they are unemployed or not in an educational or training program.
“The current waiver was a temporary measure intended to lessen the impact of the national recession,” states a press release from the Department of Social Services. “Now that the recession is over and the economy is growing, the temporary statewide waiver would be replaced by a waiver if approved by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, only for those counties with an unemployment rate exceeding 10 percent.”
Jeanette Mott Oxford, director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, says this potential cutback comes at a bad time for hungry Missourians.
“It feels pretty overwhelming,” she says.
On Nov. 1, food stamp benefits will decrease. Four-member households will receive $668 in October, and in November will be able to spend $632, a decrease of $36. Oxford says the food stamp average in Missouri has been $1.40 per person per meal. That will decrease by 10 cents in November. For a thirty-day month, that’s a decrease of $9 per month per person.
“That may seem like a small amount, but a person living on $1.40 per person per meal can’t really buy a whole month of groceries on their food stamps so they’re having to go for help elsewhere,” Oxford says.
Where are they going? In most cases, food banks, food pantries and charitable organizations.
Gary Wells, community partnership director for Operation Food Search, says those food outlets are “maxed out.” According to the organization’s website, Operation Food Search donates two million pounds of food each month and 40-80 member agencies (food banks, pantries, etc.) pick up food and non-perishable items every morning.
Wells says the rate at which these donation spots are feeding people has leveled out. The amount of need hasn’t changed, he added.
“It’s just because they ran out of food,” Wells says. “They had to turn people away.”
Nixon’s proposal, he says, could mean more people off of food stamps and, consequently, could also mean an influx at food pantries.
“The more people at food pantries, the more people declined at food pantries,” Wells says.
With the debate in the Federal government about the farm bill, Oxford says a compromise in food stamp cuts could land somewhere between $4 billion and $40 billion.
In addition to November cuts to food stamps, employment benefits will be cut.
“My guess is some of those folks have been getting extended unemployment benefits may wind up applying for food stamps for the first time or they’ve been getting food stamps and they will have to ask for increased food stamps because they have less money coming in,” Oxford says.
Oxford says the proposal is something Missouri “doesn’t have to impose” and should opt not to. She says unemployment rates haven’t improved enough in Missouri for the state to revert back to the 1996 policy for able-bodied people without dependents. She added the average income of that group is 22 percent of the poverty line and live on a little more than $300 per month.
“How do you live off of little over $300 per month?” Oxford says. “That’s just impossible.”
Oxford says she’s heard criticism of the food stamp program and that if it is taken away from people they will be more likely to go find a job. To that, she is critical of the proposal and other food stamp cut back policies.
“There’s nothing about this policy that helps you find a job,” Oxford says. “It doesn’t create more jobs, it puts no money into job training, and it puts no money into subsidized employment.”
Despite Nixon’s proposal, Oxford says Missouri is in need. She suggested ways to improve food uncertainty throughout the state.
The minimum wage should correlate with the cost of living, Oxford says. She added that the current minimum wage is $7.35 per hour and it should be around $10 per hour.
“We’re lagging way behind on what the minimum wage used to be in terms of purchasing power,” Oxford says.
When money is spent towards other necessary expenses, people tend to choose to spend less on food. That comes into play with child care. She says child care for an infant is more expensive than a toddler at about $1,000-$1,200 per month. The income guidelines for child care subsidizes are outdated, Oxford says, as they haven’t been updated since 1991.
“That may mean if you’re getting paid $8 per hour and you are offered a raise at $9 per hour and you find out you’ll no longer qualify for the childcare subsidy, so you have to turn down your raise,” Oxford says.
Another 1991 regulation hasn’t been changed since, she says. The income tax system, Oxford says, needs to be updated. Because the poor are required to pay the six percent rate, means the 20 percent of Missourians earning $17,000 or less per year pay 10 percent of their income to state and local taxes.
“If those folks at the bottom had more money it would actually be good for the economy because they could do things like buy a washer and dryer, they could buy a car, something that would give their family an asset,” Oxford says. “That reduces the amount of money they pay at the laundromat or helps them get a job because they have transportation … It would stimulate the economy but we’ve been using dishonest numbers and we all pay the price for that.”
Photo at the top of the story: Chad May (left) and Jon Ross (right) with Teen Challenge: Mid America, a Christian-based rehabilitation program, roll loaves of bread out of the warehouse at Operation Food Search in St. Louis. They filled their loading truck with food to bring back to their location in southern Cape Girardeau. (photo by Brittany Ruess)
Brittany Ruess was a reporter for The Missouri Times and the SEMO Times, and a graduate of Webster University.