Access to food (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
Imagine having $100 less every month to buy groceries.
Millions of New Yorkers are now facing that painful reality. They’ll feel it in a thousand ways, big and small. A child who comes to school without breakfast. A mom who skips a meal so her kids have enough to eat. A refrigerator that’s empty because money ran out before the end of the month.
March marked the end of a pandemic-era lifeline that provided extra money for food. Despite record-high prices for basic household necessities, families that live paycheck to paycheck have abruptly been forced to make do with at least $95 less each month.
This immediate cut will hurt.
But as an advocate fighting to end child hunger, I’m worried that an even bigger danger is coming at us.
The more we hear about the debt ceiling fight unfolding in Washington, the clearer it’s become that the millions of kids who rely on food assistance are at greater risk. One of the most important programs we use to fight child hunger is in danger of breaking.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of the most effective tools we have to feed kids. The average family in the program receives about $230 a month for groceries, usually on a debit card they can use at the supermarket. SNAP has never been enough to cover the full cost of food, especially in places with a high cost of living like New York. But it’s still an enormous help.
Nearly 3 million New Yorkers rely on SNAP to make ends meet.
Earlier this month, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the America Works Act, a punitive and counterintuitive proposal, which would place limitations on SNAP by tightening work requirements for so-called able-bodied adults without dependents. This proposal would harm individuals who already face obstacles to work – like a lack of stable housing and access to transportation – and doesn’t take into consideration those with undiagnosed physical or mental limitations. It also seeks to impose these stricter requirements on parents and caregivers of children ages seven and older, completely ignoring the realities facing many families on SNAP. We need legislation that helps people put food on the table – not makes it harder to do so.
We desperately need New York’s congressional delegation, especially Senate Majority Leader Schumer and House Democratic Leader Jeffries, to stop any further cuts to SNAP in their tracks. Just like seniors’ health care or Social Security has become a political red line, so should the programs that feed children.
Saving SNAP should be a bipartisan priority, equally important to our leaders from urban and rural districts, upstate and downstate.
But Washington isn’t the only place we need bold action to protect food aid. We need to do more here on the ground in New York as well.
Here in New York City, agencies like the Human Resources Administration (HRA) represent the front door to the SNAP program, processing applications from families. But over the last year, we’ve seen that door close on families in need.
There’s been a troubling rise in the amount of time it takes families to get approved for benefits. The standard processing time has always been within a month. But over the last year, nearly half of all applicants were stuck in the queue waiting longer.
Those are our neighbors who may have lost a job or suffered a catastrophic illness, who are left in limbo without the immediate help they need to cover expenses. New York City needs to fast track hiring for these roles and fully fund the staff and related services needed to handle applications promptly. This has to happen in the coming budget.
And we can make sure that families don’t get scammed out of their benefits. The plague of “SNAP skimming” has surged in recent months. It’s a new kind of identity theft that’s stealing food money from families who need it most. We were grateful that the federal government has begun steps to reissue some of those benefits and excited to see legislation introduced in the State Assembly that would reissue certain benefits like SNAP for recipients who were victims of skimming or lost benefits through fraud.
SNAP is too important to too many New Yorkers to be skimmed, delayed, or cut. We have to protect it for the millions of our neighbors who depend on it. Now is the time for elected officials from New York, at every level of government, to protect this vital program.
Rachel Sabella is Director of No Kid Hungry New York. On Twitter @RachelS23 & @nokidhungry.