Governor Malloy’s move to protect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from federal cuts has won praise from hunger activists and spurred imitation by New York, Pennsylvania and other states.
The Farm Bill, signed by President Obama on Feb. 7, reduced spending on SNAP by targeting 15 “heat-and-eat states,” including Connecticut, where beneficiaries of the Low-Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) automatically qualify for SNAP. The Farm Bill raised the minimum LIHEAP benefit necessary to qualify for SNAP from $1 to $20.01, making 50,000 families statewide ineligible for food assistance. The governor announced on Feb. 24 that he would raise the minimum benefit to meet the new standard, which will adapt to the policy and mean that no families in Connecticut lose their SNAP benefits.
“Malloy responded very quickly to protect the most vulnerable citizens that we have in the state,” said Mary Ingarra, communications director at the Connecticut Food Bank. “There’s about 2.4 million meals that he saved every month.”
The benefit increase will cost $1.4 million and preserve $66.6 million in SNAP benefits, according to a statement from the governor’s office. A total of 227,000 Connecticut households are enrolled in SNAP.
Nicole Berube, executive director of CitySeed, a New Haven nonprofit that works to expand low-income people’s access to healthy food, said she was pleased by the governor’s move. She said New Haven is particularly affected by food insecurity compared to other cities, with 36,000 residents on SNAP. The Farm Bill cuts would have taken away $112 in monthly benefits from each affected family.
“That’s no small change,” Berube said. “That’s the difference between a child not eating dinner the night before he gets to school for a lot of families.”
Across the state, 149,000 of 424,000 SNAP beneficiaries are children.
Though the economy has been gradually improving since the 2008 recession, Ingarra said food insecurity has not declined accordingly. Persistent high unemployment and benefit cuts have increased the need for assistance from nonprofits like the Connecticut Food Bank.
Ingarra said that in 2012, just under half a million state residents reported chronic food insecurity, defined as frequently being unsure of whether they would be able to eat their next meal. In 2013, that figure had risen to just over half a million.
Rick Durance, assistant to the executive director at the Community Soup Kitchen on Broadway, said the kitchen served 7.5 percent more meals in 2013 than in 2012, as the first round of SNAP cuts took effect. So far in 2014, traffic has been down, but Durance thinks the decline is not due to improvements in the economy or food security.
“Folks can’t even get to the soup kitchen here because it’s still so cold,” Durance said. “The weather conditions are so bad that people just can’t even come in whether they want to or not.”
Durance feels that this situation underscores the need for programs like SNAP, which enable people to find food for themselves rather than relying on soup kitchens or food pantries, which might not always be conveniently located.
Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Malloy was wrong to raise the minimum LIHEAP benefit to prevent the SNAP cuts from taking effect. She said the move undermined efforts to reduce enrollment in SNAP, which is paid for by the federal government, causing it to rise dramatically instead.
“States aren’t accountable for these dollars,” Sheffield said. “They’re not paying [for] any of it, so they don’t have a problem with boosting the food stamp amount.”
David Dearborn, communications director at the Department of Social Services, said in an email that Malloy’s move protects benefits while maintaining full compliance with federal law.
Malloy announced the initiative to protect SNAP benefits a week before the release of a Quinnipiac University poll that found him in a dead heat against Republican challenger Tom Foley.
“Addressing the issues of poverty, hunger, joblessness and homelessness are all key to creating a better future for Connecticut by improving the social and economic health of our state,” Chris Cooper, spokesman for the Foley campaign, said in an email. “Those issues will be a central focus of a Foley administration.”
Nationwide, 850,000 households could lose SNAP benefits due to the Farm Bill.