Life and Death

Recent food stamp cuts add to the strain on already struggling local families  

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/27/2014

It just got much more difficult to put food on the table for struggling American families now that President Barack Obama has signed into law the trillion-dollar Agriculture Act of 2014, which includes billions of dollars in cuts to the nation’s food stamp program. Officials from Pasadena Unified School District and Union Station Homeless Services said those cuts will affect many local families.  
On Feb. 6 the League of Women Voters hosted Socorro Naranjo Rocha, head of PUSD’s Families in Transition Program, and Gil Nelson, director of Union Station’s Family Services, to discuss what those cuts mean for local families who were already struggling to put food on the table. Rocha said her program has been receiving more and more families since the first round of benefit cuts began last fall.
“We have cases where every family member lives in a single-room apartment, so whenever we do home visits it’s sad to see,” said Rocha. “Everybody’s sleeping on the floor or sofa or wherever they can. We have families right now who are living in their cars.”
Nelson said that every family in Union Station’s Family Services program has already had $50 to $60 cut from their food stamp allotment. However, just because their benefits were cut doesn’t mean their situation has changed. They still need to eat the same amount of food and they still need to feed their children, which means they need to use any cash they’ve been saving to get out of the shelter toward that.
“Now they have less money for food,” said Nelson. “They have to use their cash to make up the difference. Now they have less money to save for housing, less money to put gas in their vehicles, repair their vehicles, buy needed clothing, all the things that they need to be self-sufficient. I have volunteers who come in and work with people to show them how to save money, how to increase their budgets, how to find ways to fix their credit so they can become a better looking applicant when they go out looking for housing. But all these things get slowed down; they get delayed because they don’t have money.”
The farm bill cut $8 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps. The program received a boost of $5 billion in 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but those benefits were not renewed in November, and another $8 billion was eliminated when the farm bill was signed into law by Obama on Feb. 7.
The latest reductions leave an average of $1.40 per person per meal, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Low-income households will receive about $90 less per month for food, a significant blow to families trying to make ends meet.
“The food stamp benefit reduction was meant to coincide with a better economic outlook, yet many Americans remain stuck in poverty and others will be included due to cuts in unemployment benefits,” Marge Nichols wrote in the League’s newsletter, “The Voter.”
Add to this hardship the fact that the $8 an hour minimum wage in California, while higher than most states and the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, is still not “a living wage,” one set by a local government agency that applies to workers with businesses with contracts with that municipal governmental entity. Since the early 1990s, according to the National Employment Law Project, more than 120 municipalities — among them Pasadena, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood and San Fernando — have enacted living wage laws.
On July 1, the state’s minimum wage rises to $9 an hour, and on Jan. 1, 2016, the minimum wage goes up to $10 per hour. 
In Pasadena, a living wage ordinance which has been in place since 1998 applies to contractors providing labor or services to the city in excess of $25,000, except those with a collective bargaining agreement or memorandum of understanding (MOU) with their employees.
The original ordinance stated that all employees must be paid no less than $10.75 per hour, plus medical benefits of no less than $1.85 per hour, or $12.60 per hour without medical benefits. Last month, the city’s living wage was adjusted according to the Consumer Price Index, raising the wage to $12.74 per hour, said Antonio Watson, project manager in the city’s Finance Department. According to MIT’s online living wage calculator, a living wage for one adult with no dependents in Pasadena is $11.37. For one adult with two children, it’s $27.15.
The ordinance includes an exemption for contractors. However, Watson said there are no active contracts with an exemption.
Nelson said that low wages and food stamp benefit cuts are causes of homelessness.
“Food stamp cuts, lack of income, lack of housing, it’s all connected,” he said. “Rent is very expensive in Pasadena; people can’t afford it. Everything snowballs, which is the way a lot of people become homeless. In our shelter we have 15 families right now. In our transitional housing programs we have about 60 children, from the ages of birth to 18. We have three pregnant women who are ready to increase the homeless population. It’s a very sad thing. It hurts to see that something like homeless children continues, having been one myself.”
The idea behind cutting food stamps and other public assistance monies, as espoused by Republicans in Congress, is that public benefits make people dependent on the government. If their benefits are cut, so the reasoning goes, they will be more motivated to get out of poverty, find a job and be self-reliant. Indeed, the Heritage Foundation, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other conservatives argue that the food stamp program costs too much, has grown too quickly, encourages government dependency and discourages work.
At the very least, the last point about discouraging work appears to be detached from reality. According to the California Department of Social Services’ Web site, in order to receive food stamp benefits, able-bodied persons ages 18 to 49 without dependents must work 20 hours per week or participate 20 hours per week in an approved work activity or do workfare. Locally, many food stamp recipients complete their workfare at the Rose Bowl.
Nelson said that reductions in benefits, like those imposed on food stamps, make it more difficult for people already struggling to survive.
“Our people are very, very poor,” said Nelson. “The things they need are very hard to come by. They don’t see the world the way the rest of America does because they have barriers. Some of these barriers are self-imposed, but most of them are things that society has put on them. I’m dealing with people who still have pride, still have a sense of being a part of society, even though society has sometimes excluded them.”