Possible food stamp cuts causing anxiety

At the Island Harvest food bank in Hauppauge,

At the Island Harvest food bank in Hauppauge, Mary Battle, rear, and her grandson Carl Beard, 13, load their vehicle with food items for the food pantry at the First Baptist Church in Bay Shore, where the items will be distributed to the needy. (Aug. 6, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas)

Food stamp enrollment on Long Island has doubled since the start of the recession, and recipients and advocates fear the impact of budget cuts under consideration in Congress.

With nearly 178,000 Nassau and Suffolk residents receiving food stamps, local advocates say any cuts should be delayed until the economy rebounds. However, both the House and Senate appear poised to approve some level of cuts to the $80-billion-a-year federal program. Last year, New York accounted for $5.3 billion of the total.

The Senate has passed a bill that would cut spending by $4.5 billion over five years -- a reduction of $90 per month for the average New York beneficiary, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. House Republicans are fighting over a version that includes $16 billion in cuts to the program over a decade; the most conservative members of the GOP caucus are pressing for even more cuts to the food stamp program.

Congress has until Sept. 30 to act; that's when funding expires under the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill, which funds the food stamp program.

Gwen O'Shea, executive director of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, a nonprofit that has organized workshops on how to apply for food stamps, said, "We'd like to see the rolls decrease as well but that will only occur as the unemployment rate decreases and as better wage jobs become available."

Republican House leaders have delayed a vote on the farm bill as they try to reach a compromise over how much should be cut.

Many House Republicans have objected to the cost of the current House version of the farm bill -- about $100 billion per year -- with 80 percent directed to food stamps.

"This thing spends a boat load more money than it did in the last farm bill," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said during a July news conference blasting the House version of the bill.

But Republicans and Democrats from districts with agriculture-dependent economies are trying to stave off cuts, arguing that the food stamp program benefits farmers who provide much of the food purchased by recipients.

Aides to Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford), Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) said it was premature to say how they will vote because negotiations on the bill continue. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) said she did not support the current version of the bill, and Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Roslyn Heights) said he "strongly opposed" the bill.

Food stamp enrollment on Long Island has more than doubled since 2007, just before the recession began. As of May, there were 111,065 food stamp recipients in Suffolk, up from 40,800 at the end of 2007. Nassau has 66,682 recipients, compared with 27,700 six years ago.

A cut in spending will not necessarily reduce enrollment to pre-recession levels, said Thomas L. Gais, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the University at Albany.

Gais said food stamp enrollment dropped to less than 25 million after periods of economic recovery in the mid-1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s. But the most recent recession differs because the federal government has increased efforts to make the application process more accessible via online applications and phone interviews. There are 46.5 million Americans enrolled in the program.

"To get down to a lower equilibrium, the Congress would need to repeal the access-expanding measures," Gais said.

Nicole Vitale, program and advocacy coordinator at Island Harvest, a food bank that supplies 570 Long Island food pantries, said many of those showing up at local pantries and soup kitchens are already food stamp recipients in need of additional provisions to make it through the month. Pantry operators who already are dealing with a dip in donations are worried that a reduction in funds will drive more needy people to them, Vitale said.

"That need is going to have to be met somewhere and that's likely going to be emergency food providers who are already struggling to fill the need with fewer donations coming in," Vitale said.

Miselaure Hilaire, 35, of Bay Shore, said she turned to the program after struggling to feed her 2-year-old daughter on her $400-a-week paycheck as a nursing home aide. She said she worries about any cuts to the roughly $360 per month in food stamps she receives.

"I wish I didn't, but I need the help," Hilaire said.

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