Dec 19, 2013

Texas’ Hungry College Students Get Less Help

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Photo by Martin do Nascimento.

By Ian Floyd
For Reporting Texas

Ja’Terrell Moffett, 20, limits herself to $100 in groceries at the start of each month. That way, she can pick up more as needed without burning through her monthly food stamp allotment of $200 before the month ends.

Moffett, a junior political science major at the University of Houston, is one of 54,547 Texas college students aged 18 to 25 who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

“I thank the good Lord above that I have food stamps because I would not be able to afford food otherwise,” Moffett, who is putting herself through college, said in a phone interview.

All college students in Texas face rising college costs linked to a state Legislature inclined to cut spending on higher education. Four-year public universities in Texas raised tuition rates 173 percent from 2003, when Texas deregulated tuition rates, to 2010, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The poorer among those students have endured one cut in food stamp assistance and could face another. On Nov. 1, SNAP funding returned to pre-recession levels, a $5 billion reduction, and Congress is debating another $40 billion cut over 10 years.

Moffett dreads more cuts.

She picked up a work-study job on campus and began working 20 hours a week to fulfill Texas’ food stamp application requirements. Even with food stamps, she said she is living paycheck-to-paycheck.

“I understand it can be an abused resource, but when people really need them, they need them and should have access,” Moffett said. “[Food stamps] are so hard to get, yet they can be taken away so fast.”

Miguel Ferguson, a UT-Austin professor of social work, compares food stamps for low-income students pursuing higher education to the free lunch programs for impoverished students in public schools.

“Presumably a student that is enrolled half- or full-time is doing what society wants,” Ferguson said. “They are trying to better themselves. So it seems to me that it would behoove society to help them.”

In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act temporarily boosted food stamp benefits nationally to help those affected by the Great Recession. On Nov. 1, benefits were automatically cut by $5 billion — back to pre-recession levels. For a family of four, the monthly allowance shrank by $36, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

“Taking $36 away from a higher income household, maybe that is not such a bad thing,” Ferguson said. “Taking it away from families that are really on the margins already, is, I would suggest, not just a hiccup, not just a regrettable belt-tightening. It is bordering on a human rights violation.”

Congress is considering a new omnibus food and agriculture funding bill, or farm bill, and the House version would cut food stamp benefits by $40 billion over 10 years and toughen eligibility requirements. Ferguson said he believes the Senate will refuse the $40 billion cut and bargain the reduction down to $4 billion.

The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the House proposal would eliminate at least 3.8 million Americans from the program in 2014 and 3 million people each year for the rest of the decade. The Obama administration is opposed to the House plan and said it would veto the legislation if it passes.

Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the House proposal effectively “ends loopholes” such as excluding the value cars, houses and other property from eligibility requirements, and allowing states to secure exceptions to food stamp rules in high-unemployment areas. The Heritage Foundation supports the House cuts.

The food stamp program has grown from about $20 billion in 2002 to about $80 billion and is one of 80 federally funded programs assisting low-income Americans, Sheffield said. A Congressional Budget Office report said the financial crisis of 2008 and relaxation of some eligibility requirements helped fuel the increase. As of August, food stamps served about 47.6 million clients. In that context, Sheffield said, “the reduction is very minimal.”

Linda Edwards Gockel, spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said changes to the application requirements could reduce the number of students eligible to enroll in the program.

“When students are having a hard time, you don’t want them dropping out to get a full-time job because then they will be destined to live a life of poverty,” said Jeremy Everett, a Baylor University social work professor and director of the Texas Hunger Initiative, a program that works to strengthen hunger prevention programs in Texas.

“We need them to graduate,” Everett said. “Anything we can do as a nation to come alongside students who are trying to better themselves and their families, I think we need to support. [With these two sets of cuts] we will see another decrease in social mobility.”

With each funding cut to food stamps, food banks and pantries try to make up the difference.

The Texas Food Bank Network distributes the equivalent of 250 million meals annually, said Celia Cole, director of the network. The Nov. 1 reduction effectively took “180 million meals off the table,” Cole said.

If another $40 billion is removed, an unprecedented number of low-income, hungry Americans will be forced to rely on food banks and pantries. That, Cole said, would amount to “wiping out our network of food banks nationwide.”

“It takes many meals off the table,” she said in a phone interview.

Cutting the programs while unemployment remains high is counterproductive the Texas economy, too, Cole said.

“We know that people who learn more earn more,” Cole said. “If we can support more low-income students going to college and have higher college retention rates overall, then that’s only going to help those individuals and boost our economic competitiveness in the long run.”

In 2010, more than 129,000 Texans were eligible to receive $195 million worth of food stamp benefits but did not apply, according to research by the Texas Hunger Research Project. Food stamps are federally funded, and if left unclaimed, the money is lost.

Current food stamp spending accounts for one in every 10 grocery store jobs, Everett said.

“When you are investing resources in the SNAP program in your community, that has immediate financial impact,” Everett said. “That money could have gone to low-income neighborhoods throughout Austin. That money could have gone into that community and created a lot of job opportunities in surrounding areas.”

Texans value a culture of opportunity in which people work their way out of poverty into financial independence, Everett said, and food stamps play a role in that culture.

“If we really want people to move out of poverty, we need to provide opportunities for young people to get higher education,” Everett said.