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Ohio's hunger games

It sits on the eastern edge of what is known as the "heartland," but that isn't where my native Ohio got its former slogan, "The Heart of It All." One of the mo

It sits on the eastern edge of what is known as the "heartland," but that isn't where my native Ohio got its former slogan, "The Heart of It All." One of the more literal reasons is its valentine-like shape. But figuratively, it has been at the center of the political universe now for a good year—thanks to its precious 18 electoral votes, known to decide many a presidential election. The key to the fight for those votes was an appeal to the working, or middle, class. And if we're to think a bit cynically and use Ohio as an example, failed presidential contender Mitt Romney may have been more correct than we realized: the people to whom politicians appeal get things like auto bailouts to save and create jobs.

But we didn't hear a lot about the candidates appealing to the "food-insecure vote," or more succinctly, "the poverty vote." Those Ohioans are now about to take a big loss in the new year.

The Toledo Blade reported on November 12 that the estimated 869,000 Ohio families receiving Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits—to which we still refer to as food stamps—could expect to see up to $50 a month less in assistance come January. This decreased benefit is calculated by, of all things, the utility expenses from the previous winter. Add up lower natural-gas prices and a mild winter last year, and you have a lower amount of assistance.

That faulty logic was primarily why the benefit reduction will now only be $23, as explained on Saturday's edition of Melissa Harris-Perry by Ohio Association of Foodbanks executive director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt:

"[We] were able to resubmit a methodology taking into account propane, which is an unregulated utility in the state of Ohio. But again, you're right -- we did have a mild winter, but we also had an extremely hot summer, requiring many with health conditions to run air conditioners, and they're struggling right now to be able to pay those very high electric bills that are now past due."

Hamler-Fugitt has been one of the most vocal critics of the state's benefit reduction, and made plain on yesterday's MHP what losing $23 per month would mean to SNAP families: 15 meals a month foregone or lost. She added, for stark context:

"What we're talking about is a single parent with one child who will see their food-stamp benefits reduced from $138 a month to $115 a month, per person. It means that they'll use multiple coping strategies, including reducing the size and portion of the parent's meals; skipping meals; sending their children to family and friends' homes to eat; borrowing food; borrowing money -- and then coming to one of our 3,000 food pantries or soup kitchens or homeless shelters during the last two weeks of the month trying to get enough food to feed themselves."

As she and Harris-Perry both noted, these are often working families—so the fact that Ohio still has an unemployment rate a full point lower than the national one isn't an effective corollary when we're talking about the folks back home who, as we put it, live below the line.

A few things that Hamler-Fugitt wrote to me after the show indicate that this is more of an institutional problem within the bureaucracy. She wrote,

"In 2010 Congress passed two bills that paid for investments in other priorities by prematurely sunsetting boosts to SNAP benefits that had been provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).  First in 2010, it passed a bill that included aid to states and funding for teachers’ salaries and FMAP (Medicaid) and cut the SNAP benefit boosts off effective April 1, 2014; later in 2010 it passed a bill to reauthorize Child Nutrition programs that cut off the SNAP benefit boosts effective November 1, 2013.As a result of the changes, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the initial drop in monthly SNAP benefits will be between $10 and $15 per person (or $60 for a family of four)—approximately a 10% reduction in average per person benefits."

She argued in her email that the "fiscal cliff"/sequestration deliberations involve the poor as well, considering that nutritional assistance for Ohio's women, infants, children, and older adults is all at risk. "Why aren’t we strengthening SNAP versus fighting to protect it?", she asked. Excellent question.

You can find below the second half of our Saturday conversation about SNAP benefits and poverty.