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Food Stamp Cuts To Hit 270,000 In San Diego County

October 29, 2013 1:10 p.m.


Peter Brownell, Research Director, Center on Policy Initiatives

Jennifer Tracy, Executive Director, San Diego Hunger Coalition

Related Story: Food Stamp Cuts To Hit 270,000 In San Diego County


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Our top story a reduction in benefits to foodstamp recipients kicks in this Friday. This week Congress is considering a second decrease in benefits. The federal food stamp bill has been skyrocketing. Guidelines need to be stricter. Food assistance workers are preparing for more people using food stamps. I would like to welcome Peter Brownell and Jennifer Tracy. Jennifer, what happens on November 1?

JENNIFER TRACY: There was going to be an expiration of an increase that was part of the Stimulus Act that Obama and Congress passed in 2009. The reduction will be on average about sixteen meals the family that will end up losing. About an average of $1.57 per meal to eat on. With this cut, it will be down to about $1.40 per meal. That will make it much more difficult for families to purchase healthy food. Foodstamp dollars are very effective at creating economic stimulus. For every dollar spent there is nearly as much generated in the economy. With the stimulus, we have reduced impact of recession, and families have food to eat. With the Food Nutrition Act, that was only able to go through if there was a cut to the increase in food stamps. We give more money to schools for child nutrition programs ñ about 0.06¢ per student, but we cut those food programs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You think the economy is stabilizing, but is there stimulus if extra benefits are needed?

JENNIFER TRACY: Absolutely. Benefit amounts last about 2 to 3 weeks per family. On the last week people struggle. People go to charity food programs on the last week, parents skip meals so the kids can eat. It's a hidden program. About half of all teachers say that hunger is a serious problem in their classrooms.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There are about 270,000 people in San Diego who receive these benefits. Are these mostly families?

JENNIFER TRACY: Currently there are 138,000 children receiving benefits and about 15,000 seniors. When we look at the population it's a majority of low age families, the working poor. Families with children that are participating.

PETER BROWNELL: I looked at the American survey in San Diego County. About 80% of the families receiving benefits are households with children.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It sounds like what you're saying, the youngest and the oldest in the population are receiving benefits.

JENNIFER TRACY: Correct. It serves the most vulnerable people in our communities.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Economic recovery funds are ending. Does that mean San Diego is feeling economic recovery?

PETER BROWNELL: As we noted in our poverty report, the stock market has recovered, real estate is recovering, but for families with the lowest income, they have not seen recovery. Poverty rate is still at the levels they were during the recession, 15% overall in this county and nearly 20% for children. Those levels have been holding stable rather than decreasing. We're seeing an increasing economy again, but families that are hit hardest are not seeing improvements that homeowners are seeing. The recovery has not helped families that need it most. San Diego is a region is also in a precarious position. Because of the losses ñ we rely so heavily on funding ñ there is danger that the regional economy could slip back into recession again. That will make it harder for these families once again.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You mention people who receive CALFresh or food stamps, how does that work?

JENNIFER TRACY: Unfortunately because they have so many low-wage jobs in our communities, we subsidize those jobs with taxpayer dollars. People who are still eligible for assistance programs, we see between 20 to 40% nationally of people who are working and still need assistance. What is also interesting is that we look at data, about 90% of people who participate in the program, they leave the program for a job within the year of getting benefits. This program is not only a bridge for people who are working, but also for people who fall on hard times and need help to get back their feet.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is another argument, that people are taking advantage of the system. That they are on food stamps for years, that they basically are not able to get on their own feet, or were not being asked to.

JENNIFER TRACY: These benefits do not last long. They last only a couple weeks. People are not living high on the hog with these programs. The participation that we see is for people who use it the way it is intended to be used.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What do we know about the factors that are keeping people in poverty in San Diego?

PETER BROWNELL: One of the things that I think is driving the problem, we are facing these issues around the sequester. One of the other largest industries that we have relied on is tourism. This brings dollars from outside of the region, but also a majority of the jobs there are very low-wage. Jobs that do not have the income that the worker needs to support a family. We have invested heavily in creating infrastructure and marketing the region as a tourist destination, but tourism does not pay a living wage that supports families.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How are benefits calculated?

JENNIFER TRACY: The first part is making sure that the person is eligible, an eligible citizen or legal immigrant. They have to be legally a citizen in the United States. They have to fall under $27,000 per year in a family of four. These are people who are very, very poor. They must verify that they are actually eligible.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is there a lot of fraud in the program?

JENNIFER TRACY: The fraud in program is less than 2%. It is actually one of the lowest fraud rate programs of government programs in the US. This speaks really hardly of the work that is done to make sure that program integrity is protected. We want to make sure that eligible people can still participate.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Peter, you are talking about the amount of money that will not go to people receiving assistance. It will not go back into the community or local economy either. Tell us about that.

PETER BROWNELL: Yes, food stamps are the best bang for the buck. Giving money to families that need it, then turnaround and spend that money in local stores. That money gets out there and all of it gets recycled into the economy. It supports everyone. That money gets recycled and people buy food locally, so that all gets recycled locally into the economy. At the national level, it's best use of stimulus funding. It is also used locally and it's really money that benefits local folks who need it, but also benefits the economy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jennifer, how our food banks taking this news? Are they going to have enough to make up the difference for people who rely on food banks?

JENNIFER TRACY: Food banks are great resources for short-term needs. Unfortunately, because benefits are so low, because people are not poor enough to qualify but still do not make enough money, they also depend on food banks for a longer period of time. Our community food banks are seeing more people than they can possibly distribute food for. We know that there will continue to be a burden on food banks. There is a misunderstanding that we can depend on charity to solve the problems. Charity has never been able to solve this problem. In the late 1970s we nearly ended food problems. This was all through federal food programs. At that time we only had about 200 food banks in the entire country. Now we have over 40,000 food banks but we still have millions of hungry people. We need a systemic system solution to end this problem.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It seems as if Congress is going backwards instead of forward. This week, they are talking about making more cuts to the food stamp program.

JENNIFER TRACY: That is correct. They are proposing over $40 billion in cuts over ten years. The interesting thing about this, it's been very amateur the way that Congress has handled this. They're not trying to understand the program. When we heard them speaking about the program, it was clear that nobody understood how it works. Instead of making decisions based on facts, they use their own projected stereotypes to make changes that are not going to benefit anyone in the community.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to leave it there. I've been speaking with Jennifer Tracy and Peter Brownell. Thank you both.