Food stamp cuts hit 9 million elderly and disabled people

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter

Cuts to the nation’s food stamp program hit 48 million Americans this week, including more than 9 million elderly and disabled people.

Nearly one in seven Americans uses the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which has doubled in cost since 2008 when Congress increased the benefits as part of the economic stimulus bill. Both Democrats and Republicans allowed the temporary benefits boost to expire on Nov. 1, and Republicans are pushing for far steeper cuts to the $80 billion program.

The average monthly decrease for a one-person household is $11. That doesn’t sound like much, but the vast majority of food stamp recipients say the assistance runs out in the first three weeks of each month, leaving them to cobble together food from other sources in the final week. The cuts amount to 16 meals a month for the average family of three, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Thrifty Food Plan.

“Even though it might sound little, for some people that’s a couple of meals that they have to choose whether they eat or don’t eat,” said Bobbie Sackman, the director of public policy at the Council of Senior Centers and Services in New York City, which helps elderly people sign up for assistance. “They have to go elsewhere to find food or they’re not going to have food.”

People can turn to food pantries for additional assistance. But it’s harder for older and disabled people to fill in the gaps left by the food stamp program, since going in-person to various soup kitchens and food pantries is not an option for many of them. About 9 percent of all food stamps go to households that include senior citizens. In New York, which has a large elderly population, it’s double that.

Marc Wolfson, a disabled 62 year-old who lives in Brooklyn, spent his Tuesday afternoon calling around to various food pantries to see if any of them would deliver meals to his apartment.

One food pantry, called “God’s Love We Deliver,” told him they could drop off groceries at his apartment, but only on days when Wolfson is undergoing dialysis for his kidney disease. So the pantry had to turn him down. “They ain’t delivering it to me,” Wolfson joked.

Wolfson has diabetes and anemia, so his diet must be low in sugar and carbohydrates and high in iron-rich foods like red meat. The first two weeks, Wolfson can manage that diet on food stamps, but then the money runs out. “The doctors want me to eat all protein,” he said. “The last two weeks the only protein I’m getting is eggs.”

Nationally, one in seven seniors lives in poverty, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. In New York City, as many as one in three elderly people are poor. As many as half of elderly people who qualify for food stamps in New York do not apply, and surveys have shown that older Americans in particular feel there is a stigma associated with the program.

Sackman said the elderly, who are often living on fixed incomes, can become “invisible” in these debates, which often focuses on why young and healthy people need assistance.

House Republicans hope to cut the $80 billion annual program further, by kicking off 3 million people each year for 10 years. Under their plan, adults without minor children must enroll in a job training program or be employed to receive the benefits. The AARP, the powerful seniors group, opposes the proposal.

“We’re really worried,” Sackman said of the proposed cuts. “This is just the start. We’re looking at a rapidly growing senior population here and across the country and a lot of poverty.”

Wolfson said he tries not to worry about whether steeper cuts could be in the pipeline. In the meantime, he plans to scour the grocery store for sales to make up for the $11 less he gets per month.

“I’ll deal with it as it’s happening,” he said. “I’m not going to dwell on it.”