When he was mayor of Newark, N.J., newly installed U.S. Sen. Cory Booker lived on a food stamp diet for a week, eating mostly beans and yams -- even contemplating a meal of mayonnaise and salsa soup -- to draw attention to the plight of the nation's poorest, who just got poorer with Friday's $5 billion cut in the nation's food stamp program.
"This is hard," Booker wrote at the time on a LinkedIn blog where he documented his experiment. "But what has me profoundly humbled is that this is a week -- just a week -- and then I'm done and can [and will] throw out burned food [a reference to a charred yam he choked down for Sunday brunch]. But millions of Americans are living with food insecurity, with worry and concern about affording food -- healthy, decent food for their families and children."
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has long been a target of conservatives. The House voted in September to cut $39 billion in a decade from the $80 billion program that has long kept the nation's poorest from starving.
With Friday's expiration of the boost to food stamps that was part of the 2009 economic stimulus program, some 47 million people -- about a sixth of the U.S. population (49 percent white, 26 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic, Census Bureau figures show) -- saw benefits drop 5 percent from a maximum $200 a month for an individual and $668 for a family of four to $189 and $632, respectively.
The number of people receiving food assistance swelled dramatically with the recession, going from 26 million in 2007 to 47 million in 2012, but conservatives argue relaxation of standards at the state level also contributed. The Congressional Budget Office expects 14 million people to leave the program in the next decade as the economy improves.
More than half of food stamp recipients are children or elderly people, 48 percent and 8 percent, respectively, and the rest mostly working poor or disabled. The Agriculture Department estimates fraud accounts for little more than a penny on the dollar.
"Charity absolutely cannot make up for this substantial cut to federal food assistance. Millions of our most vulnerable neighbors will be at increased risk of hunger if these cuts become a reality," Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks that serve the entire nation, said in a news release.
"These cuts will have long-term costs for society that outweigh any short-term savings. Not only is SNAP our most powerful and effective tool to combat hunger, it is also a long-term investment in America's future," Feeding American said in a joint statement with Bread for the World, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Jewish anti-hunger group Mazon.
Food stamp enrollment is highest, topping 20 percent, in the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oregon. Enrollment is lowest, 10 percent or less, in New Hampshire, North Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
The October Food Demand Survey conducted by Oklahoma State University indicated more than 73 percent of those queried would like to see a stronger work requirement for able-bodied adults. The survey was conducted Oct. 10-13 and queried 1,000 individuals, weighted to match the U.S. population.
The conservative Heritage Foundation last month called for not only a work requirement but drug testing, a closing of what it called loopholes involving services from other aid programs and a shifting of costs to the states.
"Food stamp spending is one of the largest and fastest growing of these [welfare] programs. Spending doubled between fiscal year 2008 and FY 2012 to approximately $80 billion and had previously doubled -- prior to the recession -- between FY 2000 and FY 2007," wrote Heritage's Rachel Sheffield.
"In total, the federal government now spends nearly $1 trillion annually on means-tested welfare programs, and costs are only set to increase, even once the economy has fully recovered.
"In fact, the typical pattern over the past five decades is for welfare spending to grow during times of recession. However, it never decreases substantially thereafter. Instead, it picks up from where it left off and continues its upward climb."
The House wants to remove 3.8 million people from SNAP rolls by the end of next year by limiting benefits for able-bodied adults 18-50 years of age and restricting eligibility.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who sits on a House committee responsible for the food stamp program, is frustrated by the status quo, telling MSNBC the government hasn't "done a goddamn thing" to end child hunger in the United States by 2015 as President Barack Obama promised during his first presidential campaign.
"I'm sad to say that we're constantly putting out fires wherever Republicans try to light them," McGovern said. "What we're doing is body blocking this cut and that cut."
Food banks are bracing for the SNAP cut impact, with Feeding America, estimating they will have to increase their output by half in the next year, amounting to some 1.9 billion meals.
"We are very concerned about the impact this cut will have on struggling low-income people and our network food banks," Bob Aiken, chief executive officer of Feeding America, said in a news release. "We anticipate that, faced with this sudden drop in their monthly food budget, many people who receive SNAP benefits will seek additional help from our food banks and the agencies they serve.
"Unfortunately, our food banks across the nation continue to be stretched thin in their efforts to meet sustained high need in the wake of the recession."
A Harvard School of Public Health study last year indicated 77 percent of Americans support at least maintaining SNAP spending levels. Researchers interviewed more than 3,000 people including 418 food stamp recipients.
Among the findings: 82 percent said they would favor providing more funds so fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods could be purchased while 69 percent said sugary drinks should be removed from the list of approved purchases.
A September Gallup poll indicated 20 percent of the 15,729 people queried as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index indicated there were times they didn't have enough money to buy food for their families. Gallup predicted that percentage will grow with Friday's reduction in benefits.