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States cut food stamp benefits even as prices skyrocket

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Month after month, more of the roughly 40 million Americans who get help buying groceries through the federal food stamp program are seeing their benefits plummet even as the country is grappling with the biggest increase in food costs in decades.

Payments to low-income individuals and families drop as governors end COVID-19 disaster declarations and opt out of an ongoing federal program that made their states eligible for dramatic increases in SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps. The United States Department of Agriculture began offering the benefit increase in April 2020 in response to soaring unemployment after the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country.

The result is that depending on a state’s policy, individuals and families in need find themselves eligible for very different levels of assistance to purchase food.

Nebraska took the most aggressive action in the country, ending emergency benefits four months after the pandemic began in July 2020 in a move Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts said was needed to “show the rest of the country how to get back to normal”.

Since then, nearly a dozen Republican-run states have taken similar action, with Iowa this month being the most recent place to cut benefits. Benefits will also be reduced in Wyoming and Kentucky next month. Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Tennessee also reduced benefits.

Republican leaders say the extra benefits were only intended to temporarily help people forced to lose their jobs due to the pandemic. Now that the virus has subsided, they argue, there is no longer a need to offer higher payouts at a time when businesses in most states are struggling to find enough workers.

But the added benefits also help families in need at a time of skyrocketing food prices. Beneficiaries receive at least $95 per month under the program, but some individuals and families typically eligible for small benefits can receive hundreds of dollars in additional payments each month.

The entire program would come to a halt if the federal government decided to end its public health emergency, although the Biden administration has so far not signaled its intention to do so.

For Tara Kramer, 45, of Des Moines, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ decision to end emergency payments starting April 1 means her monthly SNAP benefit dropped from $250 in March to $20 in April. Kramer, who suffers from a genetic condition that can cause severe pain, said the extra money allowed her to buy healthier foods which made her feel better and helped her lead a healthier life. active.

“My heart sank,” Kramer said. “All the memories from before the emergency assignment came rushing back.”

Alex Murphy, a spokesperson for Reynolds, noted that the additional benefits were still intended to help people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and said, “we need to get back to pre-pandemic life” . Murphy pointed out that Iowa has more than 86,000 job openings listed on a state unemployment website.

But Kramer said she was unable to work and even getting out of her apartment could be difficult at times.

Vince Hall, who oversees public policy for national food bank network Feeding America, said the end of additional benefits ignores the reality that while the pandemic is easing, there hasn’t been a drop in demand at banks. food.

Wages rose in the United States and the national unemployment rate in March fell to 3.6%, but these gains were offset by an 8.5% increase in inflation compared to a year ago . Food is among the fastest growing items, leaving many families unable to buy enough groceries.

“The COVID pandemic is giving way to a hunger pandemic,” Hall said. “We are in a real, real fight.”

Feeding America, which represents 200 food banks, reports that demand for food has increased just as these organizations are seeing individual donations decline and the cost of food rise. The organization estimates that food banks across the country will spend 40% more on food purchases in the fiscal year ending June 2022 than the year before.

For people like Annie Ballan, 51, of Omaha, Nebraska, Ricketts’ decision to stop participating in the program reduced the SNAP payments she and her son receive from nearly $500 a month to $41. Both have health problems and cannot work.

“Middle of the month to the end of the month, people don’t have food,” Ballan said, his voice rising in anger. “It’s all the governor’s fault. He says he loves Nebraskas, that Nebraskas are wonderful, but he cut out our food.

Demand on food banks will only increase as more states reduce their SNAP payments, which typically provide nine meals for every meal offered by food banks, Hall said.

Valerie Andrews, 59, of St. Charles, Mo., said the SNAP benefits she and her husband relied on went from $430 a month to $219 when Missouri ended extra payments in August 2021. Andrews , who is disabled, said she tries to budget carefully and regularly gets food from a pantry, but it’s difficult.

“We barely go from paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “It gets pretty tough most of the time.”

Food bank and pantry officials said they would do their best to meet the increased demand, but there was no way to fully offset the decline in SNAP benefits.

Matt Unger, director of the Des Moines Area Religious Council pantry network in the Iowa capital, noted that the pantry cost for a 5-ounce can of chicken has gone up from 54 cents in March 2019 at a current price of $1.05.

“The costs are just exploding,” he said.

AP writer Grant Schulte contributed to this story from Omaha, Nebraska.

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The spelling of Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts’ surname has been corrected on first reference.

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