On Nov. 1, the largest cuts in the history of our country’s food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, went into effect when the increase ordained by the 2009 economic stimulus package expired. The reductions, which total $5 billion, have already touched more than 47 million people—1 in 7 Americans. I spoke to one food stamps recipient, a single mother in Washington, D.C., named Debra, about how she was coping financially and emotionally with her post-cut “new normal.” Our conversation, edited and condensed, is below.
Slate: How have the recent SNAP cuts affected your budget?
Debra: I was getting $203 dollars a month in food stamps. Now I’m down I think $60 or $70, to around $130. I’m not sure because they said they cut 30 percent, and I had $12 left in my account when I went to get food stamps. This month my account had $147.
Slate: That’s how much you’ll spend on food for the month?
Debra: Yes. It’s me and my daughter at home. She’s 21. It was bad enough before the cuts: We were eating lunchmeat all week, and we only had enough for a can of vegetables a day. Divide $203 by 30 days, and then by 3 meals, and then halve it for each person. It’s not a lot. And now it’s going to be much worse. I don’t know if we can still do the canned vegetables every day. One thing we won’t do anymore is have three-course meals on weekends. We used to buy a dinner on Saturday and Sunday that would have three courses: a vegetable, a starch and a meat. But meat is going to be a huge problem. It’s expensive for anyone. I don’t know what we’ll eat for the weekends anymore. Hopefully not lunchmeats again.
Slate: So meat is the first thing to go?
Debra: Yes, my weekend chicken, turkey wings, whatever we could afford. I used to buy a beef roast, but that’s now out of the question. At Giant in the mornings, they mark down the meats that are about to expire and I used to get those. But you have to make sure portions are small enough that you can afford them. I had some “$2 off” coupons too, which helped. The good thing is that church will give me a turkey for Thanksgiving because I can’t get my own. I don’t know what else I’ll have on the table for Thanksgiving but at least I’ll have a turkey.
Slate: It’s you and your daughter at home?
Debra: Yes. She can’t apply for her own benefits until she’s 22. I’m still supporting her. I also have a neighbor I’ve known for 13 years, who’s critically ill, and I visit her a lot. I’m a veteran: I have a nursing background in the military. I try to help where I can. I also volunteer a lot for organizations that support mental health. We developed a peer program for schools, and a pamphlet that tells people where they can get help. We have a lot of meetings to figure out better intake processes for mentally ill youth. That’s a lot of how I spend my time. I’m also disabled, so I get a VA compensation check every month along with my social security. My daughter and I live on those two checks.
Slate: Did you talk about the cuts with your daughter? What is it like supporting her through this too?
Debra: We talked about it. She wants to help and get a job, but it’s a catch-22. I’m on rent assistance, and if she gets a job, my rent goes up and my food stamp money goes down. But she’s got an interview at Target coming up and if it works out that will be an interesting challenge.
Slate: Do you feel hungry a lot?
Debra: I have hunger but I’ve gotten used to it. It’s something to adjust to. I try to cut it by drinking a lot of water, but water gets boring so I buy Kool-aid for some flavor. I have kidney stones, so my doctor says I need to drink a lot of water anyway. I also have milk and cereal for the mornings. But yeah, I’m hungry. I’m very fortunate because I have a neighbor who gets Meals on Wheels delivered, and she’ll give some of it to me and my daughter.
Slate: Do you and your daughter ever go hungry so the other one can eat?
Debra: She eats. I’m her mother. I let my daughter eat. Last night she was hungry and we had some peppers. I made her an omelet with eggs, lunch meat and peppers and I went to bed without eating. I could have made myself an omelet too, but that would have meant no eggs for the weekend. And I had been in Baltimore that day—I’d bought a corn beef sandwich for $4. I didn’t know what she had eaten all day, but I had food in my belly from lunch. So it came down to me feeding her and I went without. This morning, though, she didn’t have breakfast, and I had cereal.