Joel Freeman never imagined needing food stamps after graduating from college.
But unable to find full-time work since 2005, he and his disabled wife have had to survive on bare-bones income: his limited earnings as a freelance marketing and communications specialist, her Social Security disability payments, and their $367 a month payment from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program.
"This is a harrowing existence," says Mr. Freeman of Middleton, Wis. And "it would really hurt" if proposals to cut funding for SNAP take effect.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives was poised to do just that. The Republican leadership believed it had enough votes from Republicans and rural Democrats to approve a $500 billion farm bill that, in addition to setting agriculture subsidies, would have cut SNAP benefits sharply over the next decade. But conservative Republicans, who wanted more cuts, and liberal Democrats, who wanted fewer, voted against the measure. The farm bill was defeating by a vote of 295 to 324.
For now, Congress sidesteps a paradox: Although the economy and job market are recovering, SNAP rolls are bigger now than they were in the depths of the recession. As a temporary recession-era boost to the program comes to an end and Congress moves to reauthorize the bill that funds the overall program, the threat of cuts looms large. Many critics are pushing for trims, saying SNAP is inefficient and benefits more than just the truly hungry.
"In 2009, when the economic recovery began, 11 percent of the population was on food stamps. Now, four years later, it's 15 percent even though unemployment has decreased," says Diana Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow in the Washington office of Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a think tank.
Among its problems, SNAP can discourage people from working, she says. "If you earn above a certain income, you no longer qualify. [And if you're receiving SNAP benefits], you don't have as much pressure to go get a job."
Rather than trim the program, Ms. Furchtgott-Roth and Chris Edwards, an economist at the Cato Institute in Washington, are among those who want to convert SNAP, the government's leading food-assistance program, into block grant allocations to states. In May, the Senate rejected the latest attempt – an amendment to the latest farm bill – to turn SNAP into block grant funding.
Clearly, SNAP enrollments, at a record 47.8 million people in December, have surged during the sharp recession and sluggish recovery, partly because of eased eligibility restrictions in recent years. The Congressional Budget Office projects enrollments will slowly decline, starting at the end of fiscal 2014.
Proponents of SNAP cite broad economic benefits from it – and big problems if it's cut. Some cite government data that a $1 billion increase in SNAP expenditures boosts gross domestic product by $1.79 billion. Those outlays "produce jobs, help people retain jobs, and help food businesses that already operate with low profit margins," says Bill Ayres, executive director of WhyHunger, a New York City-based provider of information and connections to community-based anti-hunger groups.
To be sure, charitable food pantries and soup kitchens also help feed the needy. But experts say already high demand for these services could overwhelm providers if the food stamp program were sharply cut.
SNAP is funded through the US farm bill, the multiyear legislation that governs agricultural subsidies. After Congress failed in 2012 to reauthorize the farm bill, parts of it were extended until Sept. 30, 2013. In May, the agriculture committees of both the Senate and House of Representatives passed farm legislation that, in the Senate's bill, cuts SNAP by $4.1 billion over 10 years; the House's version trims SNAP by $20.5 billion over a decade.
The House version "could reduce benefits for as many as 850,000 households," says Maura Daly, spokeswoman for Feeding America, a major nonprofit hunger-relief group based in Chicago. "And it could eliminate eligibility for 2 [million] to 3 million needy people."
Moreover, a boost to SNAP funding, obtained through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, expires in November. When that extra funding ends, the average SNAP benefit of about $1.50 per person per meal will decline to about $1.40 per person per meal, notes Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. (According to the CBPP, some members of Congress as well as the Obama administration have proposed delaying or averting that benefit cut, but Congress so far hasn't acted on these proposals.)
For her part, SNAP recipient Denise Martin of Troutdale, Ore., would like to get off food stamps soon. The mother of a 9-year-old and author of a book, "Eating My Way to Heaven," regrets that the size of SNAP payments makes it difficult to afford healthy eating. She also believes that "a lot of people are abusing the food stamp program."
But she doesn't think the government should slash SNAP spending unless an appropriate alternative – such as more hunger assistance from nonprofit organizations – can be found.
"You can't just whip the program out from under recipients," Ms. Martin says. "Many people need it."