Cuts to Food Stamps Will Make It Even Harder for Americans in Need

Holly L. Derr

A volunteer inspects a food item for quality control at a Feeding America food bank. Feeding America predicts the SNAP cuts will be worth more meals than their entire annual distribution, and that food banks have already been struggling to meet demand.

Accord­ing to the Con­gres­sion­al Bud­get Office, cuts to Amer­i­ca’s Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram — more com­mon­ly known as food stamps — con­tained in the farm bill signed by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma last week will harm 850,000 Amer­i­can house­holds. Around 1.7 mil­lion peo­ple in 15 states will lose an aver­age of $90 a month in ben­e­fits. Though the cuts won’t keep new peo­ple from enrolling, they will reduce pay­ments to peo­ple who had pre­vi­ous­ly been allowed to deduct their util­i­ty bills from their income. 

Con­ser­v­a­tives call this clos­ing a loop­hole.” But in real­i­ty, it will reduce assis­tance for peo­ple whose incomes have not actu­al­ly risen.

And it’s not as if this help is easy to come by. Despite the image prop­a­gat­ed by the Right of Uncle Sam eager­ly hand­ing out cash to any­one who wants it, the process through which one qual­i­fies for assis­tance is Kafkaesque. It seems, in fact, designed to keep peo­ple out. As I go through the task of obtain­ing assis­tance in Cal­i­for­nia, one of the states that will be affect­ed by the cuts, I am amazed that any­one is able to nav­i­gate the sys­tem suc­cess­ful­ly at all.

I was last employed full-time in 2010. Just as that job end­ed — and as I was mov­ing from the East Coast to the West — I fell down a flight of stairs. The recov­ery was long and expen­sive, and since then I have only been able to find spo­radic, part-time work.

Last Sep­tem­ber, when I ran out of sav­ings, I applied for Cal­Fresh (Cal­i­for­ni­a’s food stamp pro­gram) and Medi-Cal (Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Med­ic­aid) by fill­ing out an online appli­ca­tion. In response, I received a paper appli­ca­tion in the mail ask­ing for the same infor­ma­tion again. I filled it out, made copies of my dri­ver’s license, social secu­ri­ty card and proof of income, and sent it in the old-fash­ioned way: through the mail.

As the year neared its close, I still had­n’t heard back from either pro­gram. Our new insur­ance exchange, Cov­ered Cal­i­for­nia, began pro­cess­ing appli­ca­tions for Medi-Cal in Octo­ber. Hav­ing gone through the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Social Ser­vices (DPSS) with no reply, I decid­ed to try this route.

This sec­ond attempt yield­ed mixed results. In Jan­u­ary, I received a state ben­e­fits card in the mail, though it came with a piece of paper that cau­tioned, This does not mean that you are nec­es­sar­i­ly enrolled.” I called Cov­ered Cal­i­for­nia to find out whether I was, in fact, insured, but reached a record­ed mes­sage say­ing call vol­ume was high and I should call back lat­er. I found a num­ber specif­i­cal­ly for Medi-Cal; the woman I spoke with said she could­n’t answer any ques­tions about appli­ca­tions sub­mit­ted through Cov­ered Cal­i­for­nia. She gave me yet a third num­ber to call. When I did so, I got a mes­sage say­ing, If you are call­ing about Cov­ered Cal­i­for­nia, please hang up and dial …” And then it list­ed the num­ber I had just dialed.

Con­fused about both my insur­ance and my food stamp sit­u­a­tion — which I still hadn’t got­ten any notice about — I even­tu­al­ly nav­i­gat­ed my way through the web-maze of the Cal­i­for­nia DPSS to send an email. Two days lat­er, I got a call back. The woman kind­ly told me that although Cov­ered Cal­i­for­nia Medi-Cal was in the process of enrolling me, DPSS nev­er received the infor­ma­tion I had mailed in and so had can­celed my appli­ca­tion for food stamps alto­geth­er. She sug­gest­ed I go to a local office and talk to some­one in person.

At the DPSS office, I wait­ed about three hours to meet with a case­work­er, who began a new food stamp appli­ca­tion for me. He asked what I did for a liv­ing. I’m self-employed,” I replied. I’m a writer.”

How much mon­ey do you make a month?” he asked. I told him. O.K., then just get your accoun­tant to cre­ate a state­ment of your income and expens­es for the last three months and fax it to me.”

Um,” I hes­i­tat­ed, con­fused. I’m hav­ing trou­ble afford­ing food. How am I sup­posed to afford an accountant?”

You said you were self-employed! Just ask your accountant.”

He hand­ed me a piece of paper with his direct phone and fax num­bers and ush­ered me out. The next day, I faxed him my own account­ing of my income and expens­es and called and left a mes­sage to make sure he got it. I did not hear back. I called a week lat­er and left anoth­er mes­sage. I did not hear back.

By now, it was ear­ly Feb­ru­ary; I had been in the process of try­ing to obtain assis­tance for five months. Because I had met with a case­work­er in per­son and now had a case num­ber, I was able to make an appoint­ment online to see him again with­out the three-hour wait. At that appoint­ment, he told me though he had received my fax, my appli­ca­tion had not been processed in the two weeks since.

Is there any­thing else you need from me?” I asked.

No,” he replied. It’s pending.”

I had not been denied food stamp assis­tance, but nei­ther had I been approved. As of now, I am still waiting.

In the mean­time, the state ben­e­fits card I received has been cov­er­ing pre­scrip­tions; because I am not nec­es­sar­i­ly enrolled,” how­ev­er, I can’t actu­al­ly see a doc­tor. Although I applied for health cov­er­age through Cov­ered Cal­i­for­nia, my case even­tu­al­ly made it to the same DPSS office where I was try­ing to reg­is­ter for food stamps. When I asked my case­work­er about com­plet­ing my Medi-Cal appli­ca­tion as well, though, he informed me that I need­ed to speak to some­one else about that. After sub­mit­ting my dri­ver’s license and income state­ment — again — to a dif­fer­ent case­work­er in the same office, I am now final­ly pre-enrolled” in a Medi-Cal plan. I’ve been told to call anoth­er 1 – 800 num­ber in a few days to make sure the enroll­ment is complete.

The wait­ing room at my local office is chock full of women with chil­dren, the elder­ly and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. I’m sure their process­es are even more com­plex than mine. I am only nav­i­gat­ing three gov­ern­ment pro­grams — Cov­ered Cal­i­for­nia, Medi-Cal and Cal­Fresh. Oth­ers are nav­i­gat­ing four, five or more, and may be doing so with­out the help of the Inter­net or a cell phone plan.

For many peo­ple, the cuts to food stamps con­tained in the farm bill will like­ly cre­ate even fur­ther bureau­crat­ic night­mares. When and how it will hap­pen is still large­ly unclear. Will peo­ple sim­ply wake up one morn­ing to find their assis­tance reduced? Will these indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies have to re-prove their lack of income? Will they even be told what they have to do? No mat­ter what hap­pens, though, one thing is for cer­tain: America’s most vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions are going to suffer.

Regard­less of how per­sua­sive some peo­ple may find the con­ser­v­a­tive idea of the wel­fare queen dri­ving a Cadil­lac,” pub­lic assis­tance pro­grams are not full of peo­ple tak­ing advan­tage of loop­holes in the law. They are full of Amer­i­can cit­i­zens with no oth­er way to survive.

Hol­ly L. Derr is a fem­i­nist media crit­ic who writes about the­ater, film, tele­vi­sion, video games and comics. She has been pub­lished by The Atlantic, XX Factor/​Slate, and Ms. Mag­a­zine. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @hld6oddblend and on her Tum­blr, Fem­i­nist Fandom.
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