BOONEVILLE, Ky. — As the U.S. economy recovers from the worst recession since the Great Depression, the explosive growth of food stamps remains a lingering legacy. And now the program comes with an irony, as the Republicans seeking to cut it also represent vast numbers of recipients.
Among the 254 counties where food stamp recipients doubled between 2007 and 2011, Republican Mitt Romney won 213 of them in last year’s presidential election, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data compiled by Bloomberg. Kentucky’s Owsley County, which backed Romney with 81 percent of its vote, has the largest proportion of food stamp recipients among those that he carried.
Stella Marshall is among the food stamp users in Owsley County. Around the fifth of each month, she heads to a discount grocery store to buy staples: macaroni, beans, corn meal and peanut butter. At the checkout, she swipes the Electronic Benefit Transfer card that carries the $352 in food stamps she receives each month.
“Of all the things they could cut in America, it shouldn’t be the food stamp program,” said Marshall, 58, who received Social Security disability payments and is raising three grandchildren, ages 7 through 17, in Booneville on a monthly income of $1,255, all from the state or federal government.
The program, in part because of its rapid growth, became a target for Republicans in their ongoing fight with President Barack Obama and other Democrats over reducing federal budget deficits. Food stamp expenditures grew to $78 billion last year, more than double the amount when the recession started, and has 47 million recipients. In addition, the program has been subjected to allegations of fraud.
“If there was no deficit, they would still want to cut this kind of program,” Graham Wilson, the political science department chairman at Boston University, said of Republicans. “They have a fervent ideological belief that government should be cut back.”
More than half of the Owsley County’s population – 52 percent – received food stamps in 2011, the most recent yearly number available. The county, which in 2012 was 97.6 percent non-Hispanic white and had 4,722 residents, had a median household income of $19,344, well below the Kentucky median of $42,248 and the $52,762 figure nationally, U.S. census data shows. Roughly four in 10 residents live below the poverty line.
Hal Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, represents the county and in winning his 16th term last year got 84 percent of its vote. His 5th congressional district in southeast Kentucky has the largest proportion of food stamp recipients among any held by a Republican, the data shows.
That didn’t keep Rogers from voting for a farm bill in June that included cuts of about $2 billion annually from food stamps. That bill failed because it lacked the bipartisan support traditionally necessary for farm bills to pass.
Rogers also voted for a revised farm bill on July 11 that passed the House that was stripped of any funding for food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. House Republicans have said they will look to move a separate bill that would cut $4 billion annually from food stamps and similar programs.
Ahead of such potential funding reductions, food stamp recipients face all-but-certain cuts starting Nov. 1 because a temporary boost from the 2009 Recovery Act is set to expire. That will mean an average about $36 less a month for a family of four, according to the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which favors proposals to aid low-income families.
Rogers declined an interview request. After he was criticized for his votes in an editorial by the Lexington Herald-Leader, he and other Kentucky lawmakers responded with a letter the newspaper published.
“We supported both versions of the farm bill because we believe we must strengthen our social safety net for those who need it by reforming our broken food stamp system that, according to the Obama administration, has sent $2.7 billion in improper SNAP payments so far this year,” the letter said. “Reforming the food stamp program is not about being ‘spiteful’ or denying people benefits; it’s about eliminating the waste that prevents Kentucky families who truly need help from getting it.”
The Bloomberg review of 2,049 counties where the data was available included the 250 with the highest concentration of food stamp recipients. Among that group, 227 are wholly within one congressional district, with 160 represented by Republicans and 67 by Democrats.
To many Democrats, food stamps are part of the country’s commitment to help those struggling to meet basic needs. Some of the House districts with the greatest concentration of food stamp recipients are represented by Democrats in urban areas or black-majority counties in the Mississippi Delta.
A version of the farm bill passed by the Democratic- controlled Senate would cut roughly $400 million annually from nutrition assistance programs, mainly by changing eligibility requirements.
Based on $2 billion of annual cuts, about 5 million people would be eliminated from the program, according to a study by the Washington-based Health Impact Project, a collaborative effort between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. The study also said the cuts would increase poverty and illnesses including heart disease and diabetes.
The debate over food stamps comes amid an uneven recovery that has failed to lift all Americans. The economy grew at a 1.8 percent rate during the first three months of this year, more slowly than its 2.5 percent average pace during the last two decades. The unemployment rate, at 7.4 percent in July, remains above its 6 percent average over the past 20 years.
In Owsley County, the unemployment rate is 11.8 percent, according to the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training. Residents say few jobs are available in an area hit hard by the closing of coal mines.
Famed frontiersman Daniel Boone had a favorite camping spot in the area, and fishing and hunting remains a source of recreation – and food – for some. Boone’s pioneering independence has been replaced for many by government dependence.
“Almost everyone I know gets at least some food stamps,” said Sara Price, a Booneville resident who has used the program for about a decade and gets $333 a month for her family of six. “There used to be more stigma attached to it. There is no shame with it, if you are working and trying to make ends meet.”
Price doesn’t work, although she said her husband earns about $13 an hour in his full-time job at a lumber mill.
“He has the job, but it just don’t cover everything,” said Price, who recalls her own mother relying on the program. “Food stamps help a lot.”
Asked what it would mean to her household if there were a 10 percent cut to her payment, Price had a steadfast response. “We would just have to budget better,” she said. “Whatever they are going to do, you have to adapt to it.”
Maxine Gibson, 47, said she gets $165 a month in food stamps that she uses for a grandchild and another child, ages 9 and 5, that she’s raising. With her Social Security disability and other government assistance, she said her household has about $1,500 a month in income.
“I buy a lot of soup because it’s cheaper,” she said. “It really doesn’t last all month.”
Gibson also said any amount of cutting would have a negative impact. “If they do that, there will be a lot of kids who go hungry,” she said. “That’s hurting the people who need.”
Tim Charlton, pastor of the Sugar Camp Baptist Church in Booneville, said he’s seen food stamp recipients in checkout lines with 10 or more cases of Pepsi in their carts. People then sell the soda at a discount to others and use the cash to pay other bills or for drugs, he said.
“We can’t stop helping the people who need help just because there are corrupt elements,” Charlton said. “But there does need to be some way to control the way that you are able to help some, and yet not take their self esteem away.”
Cleda Turner, director of the Owsley County Outreach Corp., a non-profit that distributes food to children through schools before they go home for the weekend, said she would like to see greater restrictions on what can be purchased.
“I don’t think starving the children is the answer, but I think there should be real strict restrictions,” she said.