The cost of serving a traditional Thanksgiving feast is down slightly this year – small consolation for most of us and none at all for families struggling to survive.
The average price for a turkey and enough trimmings to feed 10 is $49.04, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual survey, about 44 cents less than last year. But the reduction in food stamp benefits is much greater, $36 a month for a family of four. About 900,000 Hoosiers are affected by the cut, a result of the end of the federal stimulus infusion. Thirty-six dollars, of course, is about three-quarters of the cost for that traditional Thanksgiving feast.
The stimulus decrease isn’t the only threat to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, however. Administered by the states but fully funded by the federal government, contentious debate over SNAP’s renewal in Congress could end with another 5 percent reduction in food stamp benefits.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman, the Howe Republican who represents most of northeast Indiana, led the unsuccessful push to separate food stamps from the farm bill. Many observers believe it’s a move that would harm both farmers and SNAP recipients.
To qualify for SNAP, a household of four is limited to a gross monthly income of $2,552. The maximum monthly food stamp allotment is $632. Family income is sometimes misleading because the gross figure, not the net figure, is used to determine eligibility. Wage garnishments for child support, for example, can reduce a breadwinner’s wages to below the federal poverty level, but the household still wouldn’t qualify for assistance.
Food stamp benefits were never intended to be the sole source of support for feeding a family, notes Pam Brookshire, vice president of community services for Community Action of Northeast Indiana, the anti-poverty agency serving Allen County and 11 neighboring counties. But the money available to pay for food amounts to whatever is left after mortgage payments or rent, utility bills, transportation, medical costs, child care and more.
Brookshire said she has never seen family needs greater in her 26 years with CANI.
“There’s unemployment, under-employment, health issues, mental health issues,” she said. “A lot of the people we see work, but it’s harder and harder to get by. Gas prices are always fluctuating. I certainly understand the depression and despair.”
A study released last month by the University of California at Berkeley Labor Center found about 20,000 fast-food employees in Indiana receive public assistance. About 40 percent qualified for the earned income tax credit. Twelve percent receive Medicaid, 17 percent have children in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and 18 percent are on food stamps.
SNAP benefits must last through an entire month, Brookshire said, but families tend to spend eagerly when the benefit becomes available and then turn to food pantries when the assistance runs out.
CANI has a family development program that takes a comprehensive approach to poverty, funded in part with grants from United Way of Allen County and the Lincoln and Foellinger foundations. Eligible families work with a case manager to not only meet immediate needs, but also to address the problems that prevent them from moving off assistance, whether it’s lack of affordable housing or the need for education and a better-paying job.
The agency also sponsors poverty simulation exercises to help community members understand the challenges its clients face. Based on a program created by the Missouri Association for Community Action, CANI has presented about a dozen of the simulations since 2010, according to Development Director Jennie Renner.
“The basic idea is to have people experience what it is like to live in poverty, if only for an hour, to experience that feeling of hopelessness and desperation,” she said. “We’re also trying to break down some of the myths – that people in poverty are lazy, for example. It’s hard work. There is assistance out there, but just figuring out where things are … you have to go through a lot and at the same time you are dealing with all of the issues that put you in poverty in the first place.”
One family profile assigned is a set of grandparents, including a 52-year-old grandfather on disability, raising 9- and 7-year-old grandchildren. They must meet expenses of about $1,550 a month on $1,800 a month in income, all the while facing increasing medical and utility costs.
For the participants, the struggle ends with the simulation. For Hoosiers in poverty, it’s a struggle not just to serve a Thanksgiving meal but to provide for their families every day.