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Could your family live on $1.40 per meal?

Posted Dec. 27, 2013, at 9:51 a.m.

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Luisa S. Deprez is professor of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine.
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Luisa S. Deprez is professor of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine.
Sandy Butler is a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Maine.
Contributed photo
Sandy Butler is a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Maine.

Editor’s note: In this monthly series, the authors introduce you to people who are apt to be your neighbors, are struggling to make ends meet and have been affected by specific state and federal policies. To share your story, write to Sandy.Butler@umit.maine.edu or call 581-2382.

In November, Maine lost $26 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps. The cut, which comes because of the end of the stimulus’s temporary financial boost, affects 251,000 individuals — about 19 percent of the state’s population. That’s about one in five of our neighbors.

While this loss hits individuals and families the hardest, the state suffers as well: Every $1 of SNAP benefits equates to $1.70 of economic activity. As harsh as this cut was, much larger cuts threaten this vital program as Congress finishes its work on the Farm Bill. The House has proposed slashing $40 billion from the program and the Senate $4 billion, a smaller but still devastating amount.

Among those affected by the November cuts and fearing even deeper cuts in the future are “Ellie,” who did not want her real name used to protect her livelihood, and her family. Her five children, ranging in age from 6 to 16, are among the 94,000 Maine children who saw a substantial cut in SNAP benefits last month. Ellie is 34 and lives in Rumford, where she moved with her four oldest children eight years ago when her first marriage dissolved. She met her current husband soon after, and together they had a child. Both she and her husband have health problems which affect their ability to work.

Ellie’s husband has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Despite his health challenges, he works hard to support his family. His work requires him to put in long hours, sometimes leaving the house before 7 a.m. and returning more than 13 hours later — five, sometimes six, days a week.

Ellie said, “He struggles through, but he does it.”

The income from his job varies, and the child support Ellie receives from the father of her four oldest children is unreliable. On average, their income totals about $2,400 per month, or $28,000 per year. That’s less than 80 percent of the $36,610 poverty threshold for a family of seven. They rely on SNAP benefits to keep food on the table.

The $580 in benefits they received before the November cut covered only about two-thirds of their grocery costs each month. The new $80 cut in benefits will make it even more difficult for Ellie to make sure her children get the nutritious diet she wants them to have.

“The price of food has gone up in the past couple months. We don’t buy a lot of junk food for the kids. We buy fruits and stuff, so that is even more expensive,” she said.

Ellie has health problems herself and needs to provide special care for one of her children who has epilepsy. Ellie recently returned to school and is taking classes toward a degree in accounting, which she hopes will help her secure employment. She has taken out some student loans to help with tuition costs but is wary of accepting too high a loan.

“I didn’t take as much as was offered because I knew I would have to pay them back,” she said.

Ellie is grateful for the SNAP benefits but preferred not to be identified for this story for fear of being judged by her neighbors and other community members. While she expects her family will need to use food pantries more often than before, she finds it embarrassing to do so.

As a society we are learning more about what a lack of food does to children’s development. The SNAP Vaccine, published by Children’s Health Watch in 2012, reports that without enough food, children risk delays in motor skills, and many experience cognitive deficits. Moreover, children in homes without enough food are more likely to have lower test scores, repeat grades, be suspended and have trouble making friends. Researchers from Cornell and the National Center on Health Statistics have found that children from these homes are likely to have stomachaches, headaches and colds more often than those who have enough food.

Ellie was not aware of the specifics of the current debate over the Farm Bill in Congress and its potential to cut more than 3 million people from the program nationwide each year over the next decade. When told that more cuts might be coming, she said she wished policymakers “would try to understand what people are going through. I mean, they [policymakers] have food and don’t really need or want for anything. Maybe they should sit down to look at a family’s budget, to see what it is like to stretch the bills.”

This is indeed good advice for those proposing further cuts to the SNAP program.

Sandy Butler is professor of social work and is the graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. Luisa S. Deprez is professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. They are members of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.

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