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Food benefits for millions at center of latest Washington spending fight

by Stella Morgan

Food Pantry Lines Grow as Congress Pushes for Cuts to SNAP Benefits

At a food pantry in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, the line starts forming more than an hour before the doors open. Over the past few months, the number of people in line has steadily increased from around 50 to 60 people earlier this year to more than 75. Francheska Serrano, who oversees the pantry operations, attributes the increase to the rising cost of food and the decrease in pandemic-era benefits. She expects the trend to continue, especially with potential cutbacks to food benefits.

Data from the government, consumer surveys, and nonprofit organizations all suggest that the need for food assistance has been growing this year, despite historically low unemployment and rising wages. However, on Capitol Hill, there is a push to curb food benefits in the latest budget battle. Congressional Republicans are seeking further restrictions and benefit rollbacks to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, as they negotiate a new farm bill before the current legislation expires at the end of September.

The rising demand for food assistance comes at a time when SNAP benefits have already increased. As of May, 42 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, a 2.3% increase from the previous year and a 13% increase since the start of the pandemic. Consumer spending data from May also revealed that 47% of households earning less than $50,000 a year reported receiving food assistance, up from 39% in February before the end of emergency allotments. The cost of food has also been rising, with a 3.6% increase in the cost of food eaten at home in July compared to a year earlier.

Among the changes Republicans are pushing for are work requirements. While most childless adults without disabilities between 18 and 49 previously had to document at least 80 hours a month of work to qualify for more than three months of benefits, the age requirement was raised to 50 years old under legislation earlier this year. Republicans now propose further increasing the age to 65 years old and eliminating work requirement exemptions for veterans, people who are unhoused, and young adults exiting foster care. These changes could eliminate benefits for at least 3 million people.

Advocates for SNAP reform argue that the current level of funding is insufficient for many recipients. Food banks across the country have seen an increase in demand as more people seek out staples like canned tuna and rice, even while receiving SNAP benefits. In addition to work requirements, Republicans are also seeking changes to how SNAP funds are allocated to states, potentially requiring states to cover more costs with their own funds and limiting flexibility in granting work requirement waivers.

While changes to SNAP benefits would need to make it through the Democrat-controlled Senate, advocates for reform believe that the current political and economic climate presents an opportunity. They argue that Congress can make commonsense reforms to the program that will help people on the path to the American dream. However, with Democrats controlling the Senate, any cuts to the program are deemed unlikely.

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